Stories of Jesus raising people from the dead are not unusual in the Gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue official, who came to Jesus seeking help as his daughter had just died. Luke also tells the story of the widow of Nain who was following the bier carrying her son’s body for burial when they encountered Jesus on the road. Custom demanded that the body be buried within twenty-four hours, so we know that the boy must have died earlier that day. However, the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus is far more elaborate as John includes with the basic story a dialogue that involves the sisters of Lazarus.
John’s Gospel was written far later than the synoptics. By the time it came about, most of the apostles had been martyred, the Temple of Jerusalem had been destroyed, the Jews had begun to expel those who believed in Jesus from the synagogue, and most of the eyewitnesses had also died. Any one of these situations would have challenged the faith of the early Church. All four of them together were stressful beyond belief. They had begun to wonder whether the promises made by Jesus were true. Jesus had promised to return after having prepared a place for them in the Kingdom of God.
So Martha and Mary are introduced into the story by the evangelist to represent the questions of the early community. “Lord, if you had been here. . . “ Jesus had returned to the Father. Yet he had promised to be with them until the end of the age. Why were his disciples dying off? Had Jesus been a con man after all?
Through the dialogue and the development of this story, the evangelist answers the questions of the community. Jesus declares “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Like so many other aspects of Jesus’ teaching, they had to adjust their expectations. After reflecting on what Jesus had said and done, they needed to reconsider what these words meant.
The first reading for today’s liturgy gives us a clue about that. Ezekiel is taken to a battlefield strewn with bleached and dry bones of those who had died in the conflict. While he watches, they are rejoined, enfleshed, and brought to life again. This vision was given to Ezekiel who was then told to go to the children of Israel who were languishing in exile to tell them that God would restore them as a nation, as a people. In what is one of the earliest intimations in the Hebrew Scriptures of faith in life after death, God promises that he would open their graves! He is referring to the grave that they have dug for themselves by their disobedience which has led to the death of their nation. They will be transformed into a new people, a people whose hearts are engraved with God’s Law.
St. Paul reflects on the death as well. It becomes clear through the reading from Ezekiel and the reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans that “death” means something more than the cessation of the life of our mortal bodies. Death is separation from God. If we live in the Spirit, even if our bodies die, we are alive in God.
So when Jesus proclaims that he is the Resurrection, we must realize that our mortal bodies will indeed die, but we shall live forever. Notice that Lazarus comes out of the tomb bound by the wrappings and cloths used to prepare the body for burial. This is stark contrast to the Resurrection of Jesus who leaves the wrappings and napkins behind when he rises from the dead. Jesus breaks the bonds of death and is no longer bound by it. However, we shall all die. However, if we have lived our lives in the Spirit, we shall then live with Jesus forever, glorified body and soul.
Jesus is here. As long as we hold fast to that truth, death and all its incumbent fears will have no sway over us. This was the lesson that John tried to teach his community. The apostles had died. The Temple had been destroyed. The Christians were expelled from the synagogue. The eye witnesses were dying. Yet Jesus was with them in all of these trials. He did not leave them orphans. We hold fast to this truth that in Jesus we have the Resurrection and Life.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator