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
One thing that has always struck me as odd about today’s Gospel is that the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus with cooling water, or to send Lazarus to his family. It could be that the rich man—who is never named—understands that he is helpless to do these things himself, but I don’t think that’s the case. I think that his desire for Lazarus to do these things shows that the rich man still doesn’t “get it.” He still wants other people to do all the work.
This would go right in line with the rich man’s way of life prior to his death and eternal punishment. In Jesus’s time, someone who wore purple had to get special permission from the emperor himself to do so and would undoubtedly be very rich. He also dined “sumptuously.” This tells us that the rich man had more material wealth than most people could imagine—someone like this would be one of the richest men in the world today—and did not share it with others who were, literally, lying at his doorstep. The rich man could have given Lazarus enough money for a lifetime and would not have even noticed; however, he did not.
The rich man suffered from the sin of greed. He always wanted more. More money. More clothes. More luxurious food. More servants to do things for him. He never looked outside of himself to the other to consider what someone else might need. The rich man turned his heart away from the Lord and in upon itself. All sin does this: all sin turns the person’s heart back in on itself. True love, in which a person desires to give of themselves to others, is perverted and becomes self-love, in which a person desires everything for his or herself and uses others in order to do so.
Jeremiah warns against this in the first reading. He tells us that the human who trusts in human beings and in created things is doomed and cursed. Only in God, Jeremiah tells us, can man have true hope. The Lord will reward each one per his or her deeds. Jesus tells us in the Gospels that we are called to be perfect, as our Heavenly Father is. The standard by which we are judged is a perfection. The only way we stand a chance is by opening our hearts to God and to others, so that we may love each other fully and truly, in a way that is proper to our relationship with the other.
The rich have a duty to help the poor, as the poor have a duty to help the rich. Spouses have a duty of mutual help. Other relationships have unique and special ways in which the persons involved are called to love one another. May we never forget to see every other person as a human person who is loved by God, and to treat them in accord with their value as God’s beloved child.