by f. Luis CASASÚS, General Superior of the Idente missionaries
New York, March 29, 2020. Fifth Sunday of Lent.
Book of Ezekiel 37: 12-14; Letter to the Romans 8: 8-11; Saint John 11:1-45.
The death of a loved one is one of life’s most traumatic experiences and can result in unbearable feelings of loneliness and grief. Many people who have suffered such a loss feel left out by God, uneasy around friends, unsure of themselves and uncertain about their future.
That is why many of us identify with Martha, when she laments in front of Christ: If you had been here, my brother would not have died. Indeed, these moments of pain, grief, loss, separation, and anguish are reminders of our mortality, and the incomprehensibility of suffering and being human. The death of a loved one, our death, puts faith to a test. It gives rise to the suspicion that He is not here, that he does not accompany us with his love.
The following story may help us to understand why it is difficult for us to integrate life and death into our limited vision of reality.
An unborn set of twins are having a conversation in their mother’s womb. Let’s call them Arthur and Basil.
- Tell me, do you believe in life after birth? asks Basil.
- Yes, definitely! Here we are growing and gaining strength for what will face us on the outside, answers Arthur.
- That is utter nonsense! says Basil. There cannot be life after birth; how is that supposed to look, may I ask?
- I don’t exactly know myself, but it will certainly be much lighter out there than in here. And perhaps we will actually be running around on our legs and eating with our mouths.
- I have never heard such nonsense! Eating with your mouth, what a crazy idea! That’s what we have umbilical cords for, to feed us. And you want to run around? It would never work; the umbilical cord is much too short!
- It will work for sure. It will all be a little different. Arthur insisted.
- You are crazy! Nobody has ever come back from after birth! Life ends with our birth and that’s it! Period.
- I must admit that nobody knows what life will look like after our birth. But I know that we will get to see our mother and that she will take care of us.
- Mother? You are trying to tell me that you believe in a mother? Well, where then is our mother?
- Well, here! All around us. We are alive in her and through her. Without her, we could not exist!
- Rubbish! I have never noticed anything of a mother. Therefore, a mother cannot exist.
- It’s true! Sometimes when you are really quiet, you can hear her sing or you can feel when she lovingly caresses our world!
But it was their turn to be born. The first was Arthur. And Basil, who remained for a short time in the womb of the mother, thought: My brother is dead. He is 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… And a moment later, Arthur and Basil were back together.
Even in the Old Testament, there are many resigned and pessimistic manifestations and about the brevity of life: You allow me to live but a short span; before you, all my years are nothing. Human existence is a mere whiff of breath. Turn from me a while, that I may find relief, before I depart and be no more (Ps 39).
The Chinese philosopher Lao-Tze said: That which for the caterpillar is the end of the world, for the rest of the world is a butterfly.
The true and sublime miracle is giving new life, rather than returning someone to the life of this world. That explains the goal of many of Christ’s miracles, like the one today, with which many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in Him.
True and abundant life. Like the shepherd and the gate, Jesus guides and leads and provides and protects the flock and each sheep within it. It is the flock of the lost sheep, we are all the one who has gone astray, but we have all been found and drawn back together.
When He speaks of abundant life it is not life your or my life alone but the life of the whole flock, it is life alongside Him, who defined Himself as Life. I came so that everyone would have life, and have it in its fullest (Jn 10: 10). Fullness in life is not a solitary form of existence but is a gift that we receive in community in being placed back into the flock. Abundance in life is not abundance in life for me alone but for us together. As Jesus prays later in John 17 for his disciples that they may be one as we are one. Fullness in life is life together with God and each other.
This understanding of life is reflected in the commitment to a common life and purpose within the first Christian communities: Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need (Acts 2: 44-45).
In the first centuries of the church, men and women of faith went to the desert to live. Often they began their spiritual journeys as hermits but they were led also into ascetic monastic communities together, to live closer to God and one another.
This is exactly what the Scripture means by saying that if one member is honored all the other members rejoice with it. The body of Christ is a living entity: it is an organic life. Said Saint Paul: I…fill up on my part that which is lacking in the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for His body’s sake which is the church (Col. 1:24). Because we are in the one body, we can therefore fill up that which is lacking in the other members.
On the one side, we receive the life from this body through fellowship; on the other side, we as members of the body supply life to others. Let us not apprehend the body merely as a teaching or a way of explanation. Let us see that the body of Christ is an absolute reality and that all the children of God being members one of another is likewise an irrefutable fact. And in view of these certainties, we should gladly receive help from others as well as earnestly seek to help other brothers and sisters. This is our life.
The Spirit of life still continues to operate in any situation of death: that of hatred, uncivilized resentments among people, misunderstandings and family disagreements, divisions in the community. There is nothing irrecoverable for the spirit of the Lord. He can rebuild and restore life also to dry bones. Many times, this new life appears before us as an invitation, a possibility, a horizon: What if you were to forgive this person? What would happen if you did not rest now, since it is not indispensable? Why do you not pray to God to inspire a word for this human being who is before you? These are daily and universal experiences of ecstasy, of coming out of our routine (good or bad) and of the discreet and permanent action of the Holy Spirit in our mind, our will and our heart.
Maybe we don’t realize it, because nothing hurts us or nobody accuses us, but at moments in our life, we can be spiritually dead in the same way that Lazarus was physically dead. Jesus wants to give us the gift of eternal life which starts the moment we choose to live in a relationship of love with Him. Therefore, He comes to us and wants to break the bonds of sin that bind us tightly and make us live in the darkness of the tomb, instead of the light of God’s presence.
Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones serves as a message of hope for the people in exile and for all of us, precisely at the time when all seems lost. Jesus plainly stated: Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live …Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice (Jn 5:25; Jn 5:28). Can I think that any person, at any time, is an exception to this continual resurrection promised by Christ?
By allowing Lazarus to die, Jesus responds to our questions: it is not his intention to prevent biological death. He does not want to interfere in the natural course of life. He has not come to make this form of life eternal but to introduce us to that which has no end. Life in this world is destined to end, and it is good that it should be so.
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. But we are also called to console, to accompany our neighbor, who is not always able (as you and I are) to live with the perspective of seeing the earth from heaven.
Some of the most beautiful words that we can hear as penitents and priests have the privilege to utter are the words of absolution. To restore the life of grace in a soul that has fallen into sin is a greater achievement than the healing of a leper or the resurrection of a dead: God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Another lesson we can learn from the story of Lazarus, Martha, and Maria is that Jesus never acts alone. He as God the Son is always in union with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. Lazarus had been dead and in a tomb for four whole days. Jesus asked for the stone to be rolled away. He addressed his Father: “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here, I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me”. Then He cried out in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!”
In a similar manner, it is important that we look at Martha’s role: her diligence and her love for Lazarus were indispensable for her brother to have a new life through Christ. This is God’s will for those He calls. This is the responsibility of the apostle, which we all have in every moment of community life, in every act, in every word addressed to our neighbor.
St Teresa of Jesus vigorously underscores this truth about our spiritual life. We can trick and deceive ourselves, she says, with grand schemes and splendid plans that might occur to us in prayer, which she calls building “castles in the air.” Instead, she concludes that mystical life is something very concrete, good deeds inspired by our inner union with Christ: This is the reason for prayer … the purpose of spiritual marriage: the birth always of good works, good works (Interior Castle VII: 4).