A reflection by Fr. John Carten, SFM, on Ezekiel 37.12-14 and John 11.1-45
In the gospel reading, Mary and Martha are struggling with the death of their brother, Lazarus. Most of us know how painful and overwhelming the death of a loved one can be, especially when it is sudden or the person is young. Our faith continually reminds us that through the power of God, they, as well as ourselves, will be raised from the dead. The prayers of our funeral liturgy proclaim, “When the time of our earthly journey comes to an end in death, life is changed, not ended.”
So first of all, today’s gospel story proclaims loudly and clearly that Jesus has power even over physical death. And through him, we too will rise again to new life. But there is another kind of death that can be as terrible as physical death…the death of someone’s spirit, the death of our heart, of our dreams, of our hopes. All of us experience this in some way and at some time as we journey through life or know people for whom this is so. For some it is an experience of crushing loneliness or a recurring cycle of despair. For others, it is financial worries that lead to a deep sense of helplessness, or of being overcome with the fear that nothing will ever change. For some, it is the experience of serious illness that crushes our spirit of inner peace and joy. In other cases, people have just given up hope.
In the first reading, Ezekiel is speaking to the Israelite people of his day who are discouraged and have lost all hope. Their beloved homeland and city, Jerusalem, has been destroyed. They are living in exile in Babylon and they believe that God has forgotten them. But Ezekiel the prophet says it is not so. “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves…I will put my spirit within you and you shall live.” This is not only referring to life after death but of the desire of God to raise us up now to new life, to a life of joy and peace.
I often consult a book by Verna Holyhead when I am preparing homilies. She writes for today saying, “People of every generation need to hear again, ‘Dead bones can live.’” Yesterday I went outside to look at my gardens and was delighted to see the shoots for the daffodil and tulip plants that I planted last fall pushing up through the ground. This energy for new life is remarkable. This same energy from Jesus is at work in us as well today, pulling us to new life, not only after we die but now!
As Jesus cries out, “Lazarus, come out,” he calls out to each of us as well, “Come out of the tombs in which you are imprisoned.” Today we pray not only for those receiving baptism at Easter but also for ourselves that we may all be freed from the power of sin in our lives. We pray that Christ will free us and unbind us, from prejudice and hatred, from our inability to forgive, from our fears and all that prevents us from living joyfully as children of God.
Today’s gospel mentions that Lazarus has been dead for four days. This is saying bluntly, “He is dead and his body will already have begun to rot. There is no hope.” Jesus says, “Don’t give into despair! Take the stone away.” God’s power in Christ is greater than any evil. There is always reason to hope. I know because Jesus has touched me over and over again and set my spirit free on a deeper and deeper level.
Three years ago, many of us had been discouraged because our church seemed to be dying. Yet with the surprising gift of Pope Francis, not only has our hope been renewed but many in society as well see him as a beacon of light. Jesus is doing the same thing in all of our lives and says to us, “Let go of your fears, rely on my love, and come out of your tombs!”