PROPER OF THE SEASON
(Heb. 12:28-13; Jn. 11:1-45)
Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther
Today we begin to experience the tensions and tragedy of Great Week. The epistle conveys confidence and caution: faith in Jesus, caution about our daily life as Christians.
‘We have been given possession of an unshakeable kingdom. Let us… hold on to the grace that we have been given… to worship God… in reverence and fear. For our God is a consuming fire.’
God is a consuming fire in the Old Testament ( Dt. 4: 24) and in the New (e.g., 2 Thess. 1: 8). Today’s reading goes on to advise on Christian behaviour:
‘Continue to love each other like brothers…’
We are told to give hospitality, visit prisoners, care for the mistreated ‘since you too are in the one body’ and honour the relationship of marriage. There is advice against greed:
‘Put greed out of your lives and be content with whatever you have… Remember your leaders, who preached the word of God to you, and as you reflect on the outcome of their lives, imitate their faith.’
Then that statement about the priesthood of Jesus:
‘Jesus Christ is the same today as he was yesterday and as he will be forever.’
The gospel recounts an event not recorded by the other 3 gospels. That event shows that Jesus transcends time. It comes into John’s gospel from the tradition of Jesus’ acts as a healing prophet. But the gospel makes the raising of Lazarus a proof that Jesus has triumphed over death. Having called Lazarus out of the grave, Jesus orders the onlookers: ‘Unbind him, let him go free.’ John makes the raising of Lazarus the immediate cause of the arrest of Jesus. John shows Jesus to us as God, and God active even in the worst situation: the death of a member of our family. By this story, John begins the course of events which lead to the crucifixion. When Jesus asks ‘Are there not twelve hours in the day?’, we should understand that the demonstrations of Jesus’ true nature are the events of his earthly ministry. The signs - the acts of his ministry - point to the passion and death of the Lord: who is the same today, yesterday, forever.
This is made clear by the conversation between Jesus and Lazarus’ two sisters, Martha and Mary. Jesus assures Martha that ‘Your brother…will rise again.’ Martha states her belief ‘I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day’. Then Jesus makes the tremendous assertion:
‘I am the resurrection (and the life). If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.’ In the Greek, the 'I' is emphatic. Jesus claims to be the source of new life, of life itself. Ego eimi e anastasis kai e zoe – Ego eimi, the language used in the Old Testament by God. ‘I am the resurrection…’ (Cf Ex. 3: 14) Then he challenges us: ‘Do you believe this?’ Martha replies: ‘Yes, Lord… I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who will come into this world.’ Martha calls her sister Mary from the house, where she has been mourning the death of Lazarus. People go with her from the house, thinking that she will make her way to the tomb of Lazarus ‘to weep there.’ When Mary saw Jesus ‘she threw herself at his feet, saying, “Lord, if you had been there, my brother would not have died”.
When things go badly wrong in life, it is because what we want is not what we have got: we have been frustrated: we have failed to achieve some purpose which would have given us more power, more wealth, more opportunity. Everyone has had the feeling when things go badly wrong that something else could have been done, which would have fulfilled our purpose. This is often the experience when a loved one dies. We could have done more; the doctor could have picked up the disease sooner! Jesus’ response to this feeling of Mary is to get straight to the point. He always does. He says ‘in great distress, with a sigh that came straight from the heart, “Where have you put him?” They said, “Lord, come and see”. Jesus wept…’ And while some of the people then said “See how much he loved him!” we are told that others complained that Jesus who had opened the eyes of the blind man (John 9) had not prevented this man’s death. Think about something else. Jesus wept; he did not grieve politely like an undertaker: he wept. Yet he had just announced that he was the source of life. The life of Christ, our life in Christ, cannot be separated from the events and emotions of human existence. The gospel tells us that ‘Still sighing, Jesus reached the tomb’. This sighing shows the struggle to concentrate his healing powers (Cf Mark 1: 41). This feeling shows also Jesus’ impatience with the disbelievers. He wants faith from us. This is always a feature of the healing miracles.
But this healing act is like none other. Jesus commands that the stone covering the tomb be taken away. Martha says: ‘Lord, by now he will smell; this is the fourth day’. Jesus replied, ‘Have I not told you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?’ The gospel continues: ‘So they took away the stone. Then Jesus lifted up his eyes and said: “Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer. I knew indeed that you always hear me, but I speak for the sake of those who stand round me, so that they may believe it was you who sent me.” When he had said this, he cried in a loud voice, “Lazarus, here! Come out!” The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with bands of stuff and a cloth round his face. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, let him go free”. Christ speaks ‘for the sake of those who stand round me’; Lazarus is released to show us what life can do with the fact of death.
Thus, John puts before us the entire argument of the Church:
Jesus Christ saves us from sin, redeems us by his suffering, and offers us life everlasting.
When we accept Jesus on these terms, we can experience that life already on earth. That is the meaning of Great Week, and of every Divine Liturgy, every act of communion, every prayer before the icons, every sign of the Cross. Jesus says to all of us ‘Come forth’ and all of us he unbinds from sin and releases into the world, which he has re-made. And Jesus Christ is the same today, yesterday, and forever. Ego eimi e anastasis.
© Dr. M. R. Brett-Crowther.
27 April 2003.
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