Death is not something in God’s original plan for mankind. Death is a
consequence of sin, that original sin we hear about in Genesis. We don’t have time
to get into all of that, but it is critical that we always remember that suffering
and death are consequences of humanity’s turn away from God and towards itself.
Even at the beginning, though, God had a plan to redeem us. In Genesis 3:15, we
encounter what is called the Proto-Evangelium—the
first good news—God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the
woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you
strike at his heel.” If there were any doubt that God has put himself into
solidarity with us, He sent his Son to become one of us, and this divine Son—God
Incarnate—wept at the earthly death of his friend. Death makes God weep. Even
though Jesus knew he would soon raise Lazarus, even though Jesus knew that
death on this earth was not an end, but a beginning, even though he knew all of
this: Jesus wept. He became “perturbed,” the Gospel says, that is, he became
stern-faced and resolute, and he commanded Lazarus to come out. He showed his
absolute lordship over life and death. Jesus shows today that while we may perish
on this earth, death is no match for Him.
Here’s the problem, though: if Jesus, i.e., God, has absolute sovereignty over life and over death, if he hates sin and suffering and death even more than we do because he understands it more fully, if even a temporary death makes him weep, then why does he permit such things to happen? Jesus brings us the answer today. In John 11:4, we heard Jesus say, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Later—without having been informed by anyone—He informs the apostles in verse 14 that “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.” To rephrase it slightly, God allows Lazarus to die so that many may come to faith because of the mighty that would be wrought by the hands of Jesus.
This all makes me think of the reflection Pope Francis gave on Friday during the extraordinary moment of prayer and Urbi et Orbi blessing. If you did not see it or have not read it, it is excellent. I would that you go to the Vatican’s website, read it, and reflect on it. The Holy Father, reflecting on the calming of the storm in Mark’s Gospel said, ‘we see how [the apostles] call on [Jesus]: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (v. 38). Do you not care: they think that Jesus is not interested in them, does not care about them. One of the things that hurts us and our families most when we hear it said is: “Do you not care about me?” It is a phrase that wounds and unleashes storms in our hearts. It would have shaken Jesus too. Because he, more than anyone, cares about us. Indeed, once they have called on him, he saves his disciples from their discouragement.’1
But how does Jesus care for us when we feel more like Lazarus: dead? Whether we want to admit it or not, something inside each of us has been killed—and many people have been killed—by this pestilence, this viral plague. The pope continues later, this plague ‘exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities.’ This plague, then, has been a call from God for us to wake up and remember our glory as human beings: that God emptied himself and became one of us to save us, to save us even from death itself, to save us from not only physical death, but also from a far more deadly and insidious spiritual death. The pope, showing us how God is calling us to glorify him, later continued, ‘[t]he Lord asks us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering. The Lord awakens so as to reawaken and revive our Easter faith. We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love.’
This is no easy task on our part. It requires faith and trust in God. We
must believe and be confident in the knowledge that God has and will continue
to save us from sin, suffering, and death. This challenge of faith is what Ezekiel
confronts in our first reading today. To set the scene: the Israelites are exiled
from their lands into Babylon. They are cut off from their temple and their
temple worship of the Most High God. The entire book of Ezekiel is built around
the message that God will NEVER abandon his beloved children. If you
look at the first chapter of Ezekiel, it is, admittedly, a little trippy, but Ezekiel
is struggling to communicate a vision of God that has at its core one truth:
the throne of God moves. God goes anywhere and everywhere that He desires
to go. That hasn’t changed in the last 2,618 years, and it never will. As we
stay at home, separated from our parishes, unable to fully participate in
worship, we face the same tragic question as the captives in Babylon all those
years ago: How can I offer fitting worship to God? How can I truly celebrate
the Lord’s day? How can I do these things separated from my brothers and
sisters in Christ?
Ezekiel today tells the Israelites that God will open their graces and
rise them up from them. God will continue to lift us up from our sorrow and breathe
new life into us even now, during this time of challenging separation. And God
does not stop there. He promises to bring Israel home. God never told Israel
that their temple was not the most fitting place to offer him worship. It was
the most fitting place to glorify him prior to the fulfillment of the old covenant
and the establishment of the new covenant during the Easter Event. The most
fitting place to offer God worship now is when we are assembled as a community to
participate in the Easter Event which is made present during Holy Sacrifice of
the Mass. God has never taught us otherwise. But as the Israelites learned all
those years ago, and as we are being forced to remember now: God will not allow
himself to be sequestered or confined to that hour we spend at Church on
Sunday. God lives within our hearts at every moment of every day. He desires to
be with us and involved in every aspect of our lives. Through this
plague, perhaps God is calling us to glorify him by putting our Easter faith
back at the center of our lives. The psalmist today cries, ‘Out of the depths I
cry to you, O Lord; Lord hear my voice!’ and ‘With the Lord there is mercy and
fullness of redemption.’
Let us ask the Lord to increase our faith, so we glorify him every moment of our lives.
Today’s Readings: March 29, 2020 Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45
Tonight, we hold vigil in preparation for that most incredible event: the birth of Jesus, the Christ Child. We hold vigil, because he is not yet born. The entire universe awaits that glorious moment, when God speaks his Word to all of us: that Word which burst forth from God and creates all things; that Word which God cannot keep quiet; that Word which vindicates; that Word that shines forth, like a burning torch; that Word, foretold by all the prophets and heralded by the greatest of the prophets, John the Baptist. The entire universe awaits, with pangs of labor, for God to speak his Word. The entire universe awaits, as the Virgin Mary prepares to give birth to her son and our Savior.
As we wait for this joyous event, we do what every family does when we wait: we tell our stories. We speak of those who have gone before us. We remember our past, how we got here, and where the future might lead. Tonight, we heard a long list of names, but each of these names has a story. It is the family tree of Jesus, the human lineage of God himself. His family history is that of the entire human race. To really understand it, we have to go further back, though. We must go to the beginning, to the dawn of history.
In the beginning, God created the universe and everything in it out of love. The crowning moment of God’s creation was his creation of humanity and our first parents, Adam and Eve. These progenitors of humanity spoke for all of us, as parents speak for their children even now. They initially accepted God’s great gift, but soon began to doubt. They experienced that all too human of emotions: fear that God might not mean what he says. Satan, the vile tempter and the enemy of all humanity, saw his opening in those seeds of doubt and convinced Adam and Eve to do something seemingly innocuous and small: to disobey God. To say “no” to the One who created all out of love. The “small” decision, though, shattered the entire universe. Humanity was separated from God and his love, no longer able to see with eyes of faith. Adam and Eve were bound to toil and labor for their nourishment, bearing children
became painful, and human vision was clouded through the fog of sin. We must now search and strive and suffer. We are all born, wounded by this original sin. After Adam and Eve, humanity has experienced millennia of pain and suffering as a result of that tragic, small choice.
That is not where our story ends, though. That is just the beginning. Because even as our story took a turn for the worse, as the universe was shattered and the human soul wounded for all time, God also give us a promise of redemption. He is never willing to accept defeat, and he will always fight for us. Despite the tragic sin perpetrated against our all-loving God, he condemns the vile serpent. In Genesis 3:15, God vows to “put enmity between you,” that is, Satan, “and the woman, and between your offspring,” that is, all Satan’s perfidious minions, “and hers; They will strike at your head, while you strike at their heel.” This woman: Mary. This offspring: Jesus. But humanity was not ready yet. You see, we expected a savior. The Jews had figured out that a Messiah was coming, but what we got was so much than we ever expected. What we got was something we never expected. Nobody expected that God himself would become man. God knew this, and he had to prepare the world—us—so we might recognize him when he comes.
The beginning of this preparation was with Abraham, our father in faith, the first in the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ. Abram was faithful to God, he followed God wherever he was led. God rewarded him with a covenant: he would be the God of Abraham, and Abraham and his descendants would be God’s chosen people. The descendants of Abraham were called to be a light to all the nations. Isaac, Jacob, and those following generations took up this mantle, finding their climax in David the king. There are a few blemishes in the record, and you can find all their stories in Genesis, but King David represented the height of Israel. From that height, Israel shined throughout the world as a beacon. Sadly, it did not remain such a beacon. Solomon, the son of David, begins the next set of names. These names tell the opposite story: one of decline into darkness. Where David repented and turned toward God, Solomon persisted in his sin and turned to false gods. There are a few bright spots in the record, but most of these names belong to kings who led Israel further away from God and into the darkness. Their stories are in the books of Kings. The Babylonian exile ends this list at the darkest moment in Jewish history.
The nation of Israel suffered many times under foreign rulers, but nothing quite compares to the Babylonian exile in Jewish consciousness. I am not exaggerating when I say that in Jewish consciousness, the two worst moments in their history—the two
moments in history every Jew remembers with pain—were the Babylonian exile and the Holocaust. That’s the kind of darkness and tragedy that we’re talking about here.
The next set of names, beginning with the Babylonian exile and ending with Jesus is largely silent in Jewish history. From the darkness of exile, generations of silence emerged. At the end of that silence, after generations of darkness, there came a light: a burning torch, which cut through the night. That torch was Jesus, the Christ, the Word, spoken by the Father, through whom all was created. Jesus, both fully God and fully human, came to save his people from their sins. Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecy under King Ahaz—one of those names we just heard—that the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel. Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecy to David that his son, a member of his line, shall sit on the throne forever. Jesus was the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that from his descendants a light shall shine forth to all the nations.
Tonight, we hold vigil in preparation for that most incredible event. The entire universe awaits, with pangs of labor, for God to speak his Word. The entire universe awaits, as the Virgin Mary prepares to give
birth to her son and our Savior. As we wait, let us ponder our history. Let us recognize God’s desire and love for us. The angel that appeared to Joseph told him not to be afraid to take Mary into his home. As Joseph was called not to fear, so are we. Let us not be afraid to allow Jesus into our hearts. It can be frightening to allow God into our hearts, because when we do we might recognize that we have to change. We might recognize that God is calling us to more. That is not a small ask. God is calling us to greatness and perfection. That request can be frightening.
But do not be afraid. Jesus is coming. He will save us from our sins, and he will be with us for all ages. Emmanuel, God is with us, is more than just a name. It’s a promise. The question we must ask ourselves this Christmas is this: How can I let God be with me?
Today’s Readings December 24, 2019 (published December 27, 2019 at 11:06 am) Christmas – Vigil Mass Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 89; Acts 13:16-17, 22-25; Matthew 1:1-25
In the Gospel, Jesus tells a parable of a master who forgives a great debt. This servant, forgiven of his debt, then turns around and throws a fellow servant into prison for a much smaller debt. The master is displeased, and hands down a judgment in line with how the servant with great debt judged the servant with little debt.
We are the servants with a great debt. How we treat others, however, does not have to be as the servant with great treats others in the parable. Azariah recognizes this. He and two other Jewish men have been cast into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship and pay homage to false gods in Babylon. They pray a beautiful prayer amidst the flames, begging God to have mercy on them. They proclaim their trust and confidence in God, offering to Him everything that they have.
They end by asking God to bring glory to his name, which he does. The men are saved from the fire. The king of Babylon then proclaims that Israel’s God is not to be disrespected because of his great power. The three men, as well as the prophet Daniel, go on to be the most sought-after and intelligent men in the entire kingdom. By dedicating themselves to God, and acting in accord with his law, the men gave glory to God with their lives.
Let us be like Azariah, and offer ourselves to God, who has forgiven us a great debt—a debt we could never hope to repay on our own.