p. Luis CASASUS | President of the Idente Missionaries
Rome, March 26, 2023 | Fifth Sunday of Lent
Ez 37:12-14; Rom 8:8-11; Jn 11:1-45.
The three Readings of today fit beautifully together as they tell us of death yielding to a new way of life. The metaphor of twins in their mother’s womb has been used to illustrate our limited perspective on life and each other. Here is a version that shows how we contemplate death:
Imagine that in the womb of a mother there are twins. They can see and speak to each other during the nine months of gestation. They only know their own little world and cannot imagine what life is like outside. They do not know that people marry, work, and travel. They have no idea that there are animals, plants, flowers, mountains. The only thing they know is the kind of life they have inside the womb.
After nine months, the twins are born by turn. And the one who was born a few seconds later and remained, even for a short time, in the womb of the mother, would certainly think: My brother is dead. He’s not here anymore. He disappeared and left me … and he cries. But the brother is not dead. He only left a restricted, short, limited life and went into another form of life.
When we speak of the suffering that each one of us must necessarily go through, of the setbacks that sometimes accumulate in our days, we always remember that Jesus lived in the midst of difficulties, of incomprehension on the part of his enemies and his own, and naturally we recall the Passion and the Cross.
But surely today’s Gospel is what we should remember when we feel helpless in the face of the pain of our neighbor or the death of loved ones. We identify with Martha and Mary when they reproached Christ: If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But He shared our emotions and sorrows. He too felt the pain of losing someone He loved. He shared the pain of Mary’s tears. He could imagine how distraught the sisters were in the last four days, bereaving their brother’s death. Jesus wept, but did nothing to stop the process of the end of Lazarus’ life and the suffering of his sisters.
Perhaps the question is not: Why does pain and death happen, but: ¿Since it seems inevitable, why doesn’t God allow us to understand it? Maybe it’s best not to ask so many questions. In any case, to this Christ answers today: I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? His desire is that we place ourselves in His hands, as He Himself did on the Cross when He addressed His Father: Into your hands I commend my spirit.
It is not the logic of this world, which asks us to know the way well before taking the first step, but the heavenly logic, which leads us to trust in the plans of our heavenly Father, who allows us to know, but we do not need to understand fully. This is probably why Jesus went on the fourth day after the death of Lazarus, as He Himself said: Our friend Lazarus is resting, I am going to wake him. Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad I was not there because now you will believe. Clearly, the delay of Jesus was to underscore that Lazarus truly died and was not simply sick or in coma.
One thing we must keep in mind is that God is NOT the creator of pain and death, and neither are these two “divine punishments”. Of course, we cannot aspire to fully understand either pain or death, because tears prevent us from doing so. It is like when we try to reason with a child in the middle of a tantrum….
In any case, St. John Paul II, in his famous Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering), masterfully explained what we can understand about pain with the help of faith.
The Letter begins with quoting the Apostle Paul: In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church (Col 1:24).
The Apostle Paul was able to rejoice in suffering, because of his discovery that to suffer is to partake in the salvific suffering of Christ for the benefit of the church. Suffering has meaning and dignity because of its redemptive power and spiritual significance in the context of the sacrifice and passion of Christ. Therefore, the proper human response to suffering is twofold: heart-felt compassion and the imperative of faith:
Suffering evokes compassion; it also evokes respect and in its own way it intimidates. For in suffering is contained the greatness of a specific mystery. This special respect for every form of human suffering must be set at the beginning of what will be expressed here later by the deepest need of the heart and also by the deep imperative of faith.
We probably all remember a story similar to the following: A man was on the subway enjoying a nice relaxing trip home, when a man and his two kids got on the train. The two kids started wreaking havoc, yelling, running, grabbing newspapers out of the hands of passengers. Tempers were rising. Finally, this man turned to the father of the two children and asked/told him to do something about his unruly children who were disturbing everyone on the train. The father turned to him and said: I suppose you’re right. We just came from the hospital where their mother just died… I guess they aren’t taking it very well. Of course, everything changed in an instant. No one can remain mad at that.
St. Teresa of Calcutta said: If you knew all, you would forgive all. That is to say, if you knew why that person did that, you would forgive him, without even the need of him asking for forgiveness. But it is not a simple question of “information”, of knowing the details of others’ lives. It is enough to be aware, always conscious, that our neighbor needs continually to receive peace, to be healed, like Lazarus, like Martha and Mary, like you and me.
Pope John Paul II also pointed out that Christ does not explain the mystery of suffering, nor does he give abstract reasons. Christ simply calls his disciples to take up their cross to follow him. By following the example of Christ, his disciples will begin to understand the redemptive value of suffering and experience the joy of fellowshipping with Christ.
Of course, Lazarus had to die again, which is an indication that Christ did not attach great relevance to that kind of physical and temporary resurrection. On the contrary, we know the importance of how Lazarus became living proof of the truth that Jesus proclaimed, to the point that the religious authorities planned to kill him to put an end to his powerful testimony (Jn 12: 9-11).
Loneliness, abandonment, distance, betrayal, ignorance, disease, and pain are forms of death. Our life here is never complete. It is always subject to limitations. This cannot be the final world, our ultimate destiny. To live fully and without death, we must get out of it.
As we have just pointed out, God is not the author of evil, pain and death, but he is attentive so that they become occasions of true purification, of liberation from our sins and our limitations, even those for which we are not guilty, as happened to the blind man whom Jesus cured with mud and saliva.
We cannot overlook the words spoken by Thomas in today’s Gospel text. Even though he didn’t entirely understand Jesus, it was him who shows us what is necessary. Thomas realized that if Jesus went to Bethany, all of their lives would be in danger, since the authorities had only recently tried to kill him in that area. But once Jesus decides to go, it is Thomas who says: Let us also go to die with him. To nurture a deeply personal relationship with Jesus means that we are willing to even die for him. Most of the time, dying for Jesus will mean simply dying to our ego, letting go of our ideas and opinions in order to practice mercy and love.
The Spirit-filled life is a life of intimacy with God. In today’s Second Reading, Paul stresses the empowering action of God the Father, Christ His Son, and the Holy Spirit.
When I read today’s Gospel, I was reminded a comment made during a meeting at the university where I worked. The meeting, itself, was fairly straightforward, sharing reports and determining deadlines. This particular meeting, however, took a bit of an unusual twist. After one member of the Department provided her report she included a health status on a former colleague. She mentioned that he was in the hospital and would be having yet another cancer surgery. She ended her update by adding that he was hopeful and in very good spirits. It was at that moment that another professor commented: I don’t know how he can possibly be so calm and peaceful. If I was experiencing cancer, I would always wonder what I had done wrong in my life.
The attitude behind the professor’s comment is the exact same as that in our Gospel today. Often times it’s easier for us to focus on why bad things happen, and neglect focusing on what we are being called to do in the midst of a difficult situation. Certainly this is a struggle for every human. However, Jesus points out that when we are asked to deal with difficulties and hardships, it’s not a punishment from God, but rather an opportunity for us to grow in holiness. If we can bring ourselves to accept the situation we are in, then we can open our eyes of faith and look for opportunities to improve our relationship with God and our brothers and sisters.
Bad things, unfortunately, will happen to us all. However, perhaps the real tragedy is the spiritual growth we miss out on achieving in the midst of our difficulties.
In the Sacred Hearts of Jesus, Mary and Joseph,