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5th Sunday of Lent

March 29th - 5th Sunday of Lent
by Fr. Don Babinski

    Our first reading from the Old Testament, our responsorial from Psalm 130 and our Gospel from St. John fit perfectly together. Their message can be summed up 
in two key phrases: life and death; hope and despair.
    Whether it's providential or not, the appointed readings for this Fifth Sunday of Lent provide comfort and assurance to our worried and wearied souls during this 
scorching pandemic known as the COVID-19 virus.  These are uncertain and challenging times for all of us.
    The annals of history will show that through the millennia people of all nations have had to face grave troubles of all kinds.  It was no different for God's Chosen 
    In our first reading from Ezekiel, the prophet is sent to the people of Israel now living in exile in Babylonia. Their temple in Jerusalem is in ruins.  Their city has 
been destroyed.  Many of them killed at the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar's armies.  And thos who survived are enslaved in a foreign land.
    The prophet Ezekiel urges his fellow exiled Israelites to look beyond the siege and destruction of Jerusalem to a new future, when God's spirit will restore their 
nation.  God promises them a new life saying, "I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel. ...I have promised, 
and I will do it, says the Lord. ... I will put my spirit in you that you may live."  
These words of promise are designed to reassure and comfort the people of Israel 
that God has not abandoned them.  Ezekiel's message is one of hope and restoration for those who believe in the God of life.
    God hears the plea of his people in captivity.  He does not let their cry go unheard.  Despite how we may feel or think at times, God will not let our pleas and prayers 
go unattended either, especially during this perilous period we are experiencing globally with the Coronavirus.
    The despair which the exiled Israelites experienced and the despair we are currently experiencing during this recent pandemic is reflected in Sunday's Responsorial 
Psalm taken from Psalm 130.  The psalmist laments the situation in which he finds himself, saying, "Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, hear my voice!  Let 
your ears be attentive to my voice in supplication." 
 Then, having placed everything in God's hands, the psalmist sings, "I trust in the Lord; my soul trusts in his word."  The psalmist finishes his original lament on an up note, saying, "For with the Lord is kindness and with him is plenteous redemption."
    Like the psalmist, we, too, lament the devastating effects that this terrible Coronavirus has unleashed on our world, physically, psychologically, spiritually and financially.  
It has changed how we live; how we move; and how we have our being.  But, like the psalmist, we must have trust; we must have faith.  Jesus promised he would never 
abandon us, that he would remain with us until the end of time.  In what seems to be the darkest of times, we must believe what Jesus promised.
    The prophet and the psalmist's message of renewal and restoration, along with Jesus' promise, set the scene for the Gospel from St. John.  It describes Jesus' seventh and greatest miracle - his resurrection.  As we listen to the gospel story we hear about two sisters, Martha and Mary, and their brother Lazarus.  Ironically, the focus of today's 
long gospel narrative is not so much on Lazarus, as it is on the relationship Jesus shares with his two sisters.
    From Luke and John's gospels, we learn that these three siblings shared a very special bond with Jesus.  It is very clear that Jesus had a great love for Martha, Mary 
and Lazarus.  They became intimate friends.  No instructions are needed between true friends, except to let the other know his or her situation so he or she can respond 
to it the best way he or she can.  Neither does friendship impose; it trusts.  That was how it was between Jesus and Lazarus and his sisters.  Whenever he was in Bethany, 
Jesus was invited into their home; stayed with them; and enjoyed their hospitality.
    This helps the reader and listener of this gospel to understand Martha's and Mary's reaction to Jesus in our gospel narrative.  They had sent word to Jesus with a message, "Master, the one you love is ill."  This was not only a simple message; it was a prayer.
    At first glance it seems that Martha and Mary are on the verge of complaining to Jesus because he wasn't responding the way perhaps they wanted.  But as the drama 
of this story unfolds we see the contrary.  We come to appreciate these two sisters as women of deep faith.
    Even the disciples of Jesus are bewildered that Jesus doesn't immediately rush to Lazarus' side.  Instead, he decides to stay another two ore days in the place where 
he was.  This is not because he did not love Lazarus.  This delay and Jesus' deliberate decision to allow Lazarus to die were essential to the story so "that the Son 
of God may be glorified through it." 
 In John's Gospel, all the actions which Jesus performed are so that God could be glorified.  The raising of Lazarus is one 
such instance.
    In our story, Jesus finally approaches the village of Bethany.  Martha rushes out to meet him, while Mary remains at home grieving. On meeting Jesus, Martha says, 
"Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."
    Martha's reaction is no different from ours at times when we undergo trials and hardships.  How often we question Jesus' presence and help, saying, "Where were you, 
Lord when I needed you?" Yet, we need to learn from Martha's example.  Despite her questioning and tremendous grief, Martha maintains her faith in Jesus and is aware 
of his healing  powers, but she does not dare to go beyond that.
    Then, a beautiful dialogue follows between Jesus and Martha.  Jesus tells Martha, "Your brother will rise." Martha replies, "I know he will rise, in the resurrection 
on the last day,"
 reflecting her Jewish belief of life after death.  Jesus tells Martha, "I am the Resurrection and the Life."  This is the core statement of the whole story 
and is one of the seven great "I Am" statements in John's Gospel.  It gives great meaning to our pains, trials and even death.
    Jesus continues to clarify the meaning of that statement by saying, "Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me 
will never die."
  In saying this Jesus is not only affirming that life goes beyond the grave, but also that the life he gives begins here and now for all those who accept and 
totally live his way.  Jesus then asks her, "Do you believe this?" With a restored hope and a great confession of faith, she answers, "Yes, Lord. I have come to believe..."
    Martha returns home to summon her sister Mary with the gentle and inviting words, "The teacher is here and is asking for you."  When Mary encounters Jesus, she 
says the same thing her sister Martha said, "Lord, if you  had been here, my brother would not have died."  However, Mary's questioning of Jesus does not come with 
a reply as was the case of Martha's earlier questioning when Jesus entered into dialogue with Martha.
    Like her sister Martha, Mary knows Jesus could have saved their brother.  But as well as enduring grief at the loss of their beloved Lazarus, the sisters also have to endure 
the bafflement at Jesus' seeming neglect.  Why did he not act when he was informed of Lazarus' illness?
    As we hear at the end of the gospel narrative, Jesus tells the sisters why he allowed their brother to die: so that they would see the glory of God.  We see God's glory 
shine out when death itself, and not just disease, is overcome and reversed, such as we pray will happen so with the COVID-19 virus.  God's glory is revealed when he 
does not merely shield us from sadness, but reaches into the depths of despair, and turns it into perfect joy.
    We are told in the gospel that when Jesus saw Mary weeping and the Jewish folk who had come to comfort  her, weeping as well, he became perturbed and deeply 
troubled.  The Greek wording for this is better translated: Jesus was angry - angry at his friend Lazarus dying and angry at death in general.  We also learn that Jesus 
even wept over the death of his friend Lazarus.
    The humanity of God's divine Son is nowhere more visible in the gospels than in this account of the raising of Lazarus in which Jesus exhibits anger, sorrow and tears.  
These human emotions demonstrate that Jesus truly cares.  Jesus' love is real.  And his sorrow at the death of Lazarus is real.
    AT the tomb, which consists of a cave with a stone blocking the entrance, Jesus orders that the stone be removed.  Martha warns, "Lord, by now there will be a stench; 
he has been dead for four days."
  Jesus replies, "Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?"  When here brother hears the voice of Jesus say, "Lazarus, come out," and emerges from the tomb alive, paradoxically Martha's belief in Christ is sealed forever.
    If a person can come back to life after being truly dead - especially someone like Lazarus after four days in the tomb - then we can begin to recognize that there is a 
power over life and death, and that death is not the final word about life.  The raising of Lazarus is a revelation, a sign, a pledge of Jesus' power over death.  This miracle, 
is supreme proof that Jesus is Lord, that he possesses life-giving powers.
    As followers of Jesus Christ, we believe in the resurrection of the dead.  We believe that death is not the end of everything.  Rather, death is a passage into eternal  life 
and that the life hereafter is only a continuation of this life.  But this life after death can only be ours under one condition, namely to believe in Jesus.  Life after death 
is God's gift and not something we merit by ourselves.  What saves us is our faith in Jesus Christ expressed in our love for God and one another.
    The raising of Lazarus is not just the resurrection of a dead man (sadly, after having "come back to life" in our gospel story, Lazarus would have to die again at a later 
time in order to share in Christ's resurrection).  It is a powerful symbol of a new life that all of us can undergo when we submit to Jesus as our Lord and Savior.  We, too, 
can rise from the death of sin to a life bathed in the love of God.
    Just as the prophet Ezekiel could sense the new spirit which would come upon his fellow Israelites when they returned from exile, so also we who believe even now 
have an experience of resurrection.  Our lives begin to change in this life when we follow our Lord Jesus.  When we center our life in Jesus, when we begin to die to our selfishness and live for others, then Jesus will be glorified in us.  This is what it means to rise in glory with him even now.
    From the very beginning of this season of Lent, the Church has invited us to die to ourselves.  It is the only way for Jesus to become our "life and resurrection."  
As we continue to experience the pains, hardships, and even deaths caused by this terrible pandemic outbreak of the Coronavirus, let us not lose hope.  We believe there is 
a light which no darkness can overcome - our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Let us remember that the forty days of Lent will always lead us to the joy of Easter - a time 
of rebirth and restoration!
    We and our world will rise from the ashes that this vicious virus has inflicted.  Still, the question posed by Jesus to Martha remains ours to answer: 

"Do you believe this?"