Death is very much in the news media and in our minds and hearts these troubled days. Today’s readings are appropriately about death, but more importantly, about life, love, and resurrection — the drama of salvation. In the Church’s preparation for the Feast of Easter, the fifth Sunday of Lent is designated for the Third Scrutiny or examination of Candidates for baptism and full reception into the Church. The readings for today must be approached from this perspective to understand how they illuminate the minds and hearts of those who are turning their whole life over to the power of the Spirit of Christ.
To begin with, in the most famous and striking passage from Ezekiel, God promises the people of Jerusalem, “you will know
that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves…. And I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live….”
The word that Ezekiel uses in this passage serves as a link with the opening passage of scripture, the first verse of Genesis: ‘ruach,’ the spirit of God brooding over the waters of Creation. The word for “spirit” became synonymous with life itself, because it actually means “breath” not only in Hebrew, but also Greek and Latin. It is through God’s breath in the world that life appears and, importantly, reappears. And in this passage from Ezekiel we find the powerful image of the spirit of God moving over the scattered bones of corpses strewn in the desert, recreating them, clothing them in flesh and fiber, and breathing new life into them. Israel would be reborn by the spirit of God.
In the letter the Romans, St. Paul identifies the true source of life in a world deeply in love with death: just as God breathes vitality into ancient very mortal remains which prefigured the resurrection of Jesus, so too, God will raise us to new life by that same spirit:
“Though your body may be dead it is because of sin, but if Christ is in you then your spirit is life itself because you have been justified; and if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, then he who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies through his Spirit living in you.”
John’s gospel moves in a different direction, but the teaching is the same. The story of the death and raising of Lazarus is, in fact, the turning point in the Gospel of John. It contains the shortest and most moving verse in all of scripture: “Jesus wept.” Exactly why Jesus wept is not told to us, although the bystanders think they know. But perhaps it was because Jesus also knew that what he was about to do would set forces in motion that would end his own life by restoring life to his friend. The climax comes when Jesus cries in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ Jesus’ words, Jesus’ breath, moves into the stone tomb, over and into the dead body of his friend, and life is rekindled. The dead man comes out, his feet and hands bound with linen bands and a cloth round his face. And Jesus says to them, ‘Unbind him, let him go.’
Unbind him and let him go. The point of this story, in the original catechesis of the Church, our lesson for this Sunday in Lent, is found in these two commands.
“Loosen him” is actually what Jesus says. Set him free. It was the term used for breaking prisoners’ bonds. The second word of Jesus is “Let him go.” The word literally means ‘to send away,’ and was used for canceling debts, remitting penalties, and pardoning offenses. It is the word we translate as “forgive.”
Despite its prominence in Jesus’ teaching and Christian preaching, the word for “forgive” is found only here in the gospel of John — his way of pointing to it very loudly. And so the question we bring to the story of Lazarus is, What does forgiveness have to do with being raised from the dead? Is it only a metaphor for a new way of life? The fulfillment in Jesus of the ancient promise to Ezekiel: deliverance from the power of sin and death?
Certainly that: Jesus freely submitted to the power of death and thus robbed it of its “sting.” Death is no longer the penalty of sin. But to see death merely as life’s closing moment is not to be delivered from death. Salvation is, rather, the ability to live in the freedom of Christ, no longer subject to the power of death in our world. And that is what the story of Lazarus is about for us especially on this fifth Sunday of Lent in the year of COVID-19 as catechumens continue to ponder the meaning of Christian commitment.
First, it is obvious that to the extent that sin still rules human life, we still experience the reign of death in the power of the world to determine the meaning and value of our lives, particularly in the subjection of the innocent, the defenseless, and the poor to the powers of greed, social indifference, and oppression. This is what it means to be buried alive, entombed.
For Jesus the way out of all the hate, murder, and suffering that mar our world is surprisingly simple. “Free him and let him go” — which is to say ‘forgive one another.’ Although the cornerstone of Jesus’ teaching, forgiveness has become so familiar to us we have forgotten what it means. It means to let go, to let up, to put it behind us, to lay off, to cancel all debts. As Jesus taught it forgiveness alone can undo the chain of violence and revenge by cutting through it cleanly, stopping it here and now. And that make us uncomfortable. We prefer revenge. We want to get even. We want our enemies to go to hell….
What makes us even more uncomfortable is the unusual characteristic of real forgiveness, that it takes someone else to do it. Lazarus is alive, but still tied hand and foot. He cannot untie himself but needs to be cut loose. Like Lazarus, we are constrained by the consequences and effects of our own sinfulness, and need to be released, to be cut free. We can’t do that ourselves. In all of scripture there is not a single mention of “forgiving oneself,” and for a good reason. It is spiritually, psychologically, morally, and even legally impossible to do so. And we can be forgiven, Jesus tells us, only to the extent that we forgive others. The ability to be forgiven comes through being willing to forgive, as we are about to repeat once again in the Lord’s Prayer.
It starts with each one of us. We need each other to be truly free. And we will know the reality of the new life that courses through the world, renewing the very flesh on our dry and brittle bones, and restoring spirit to body, when forgiveness flows like a river from person to person, from group to group, nation to nation. And that is resurrection and life.
“Count it all joy…”
Years ago, when I was still a mere student in the Dominican order, my German teacher, a devout Lutheran widow and artist who had fled Germany with her family just as Hitler began his conquest of Europe, used this snippet from the Epistle of James to create a Lenten banner for our chapel. It is especially appropriate today, for this is traditionally called “Laetare Sunday,” from the first word of the entrance antiphon, “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her! Be joyful all who were in mourning…” [Isaiah 66:10-11].
We are halfway to Easter, now, and the violet hues of Lent are lightened in anticipation on this day to rose. Today’s alternate readings
are especially selected, to accord with the preparation of candidates for baptism, the “second scrutiny.” Easter celebrations will certainly be muted this year, if they are observed in public at all. But the message of these powerful readings is enduring and have been through centuries of struggle and disaster.
We are in the midst of such a testing, something novel and frightening for our generation. Oddly enough, epidemics and even pandemics are not entirely rare — they occur about every ten years. Apparently, the 1957 Bird Flu was much deadlier. The Swine Flu was very bad. And back in 1918, the whole world went into shock from the Spanish flu (which wasn’t Spanish but very deadly, accounting for at least 50 million deaths worldwide). But the world has endured AIDS, SARS and MERS, Ebola, the Marburg virus, dengue, and Zika, not to mention cholera, typhoid fever, smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and polio — all the way back to the Black Death and the Yellow Plague. No one was ever adequately prepared for such calamities, if we perhaps have less excuse than previous generations, especially in regard to the next one. We had ample warning.
These readings are about vision – about seeing things in the light of faith. They should be read in their entirety – first, the splendid story of how the most unlikely of likely lads was anointed to become the leader of Israel, not because he was particularly virtuous (even before he became king, David was capable of some pretty devious dealings), but because he was chosen: God loved him, for reasons best known to God. As the prophet Samuel insisted, “Not as humans see does God see, because humans see the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart.”
The reading from the Letter to the Ephesians shifts the visual imagery to light and darkness, making the unseen seen, the hidden evident “Everything exposed by the light becomes visible, because everything that becomes visible is light.” And light, it has just been said, “produces every kind of goodness, justice, and truth.”
The wonderfully dramatic sequence from John’s gospel extends the visual image further, moving from the healing of the man born blind to his interrogation (and even that of his parents) by the authorities who were eager to discredit this act of compassion by Jesus. Fake news! And on the Sabbath!
The play on blindness and seeing moves far beyond a physical ailment and cure to the theme encountered in the words of Samuel to Jesse and his sons – it is an affair of the heart, the willingness to see, and the ability to open our eyes spiritually in order to do so. The refusal to see the truth is the worst form of blindness, far more injurious than physical blindness. It bespeaks a heart turning to stone. Ultimately, insight is a gift, freely offered but easy to overlook. And joy? In the end, joy is not pleasure, entertainment, or fun, but love possessed.
“Count it all joy, brothers and sisters, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfast endurance. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” [James 1:2-4].
Rest in peace, Mrs. Leo. Pray for us.
This Sunday appears to be unprecedented in the churches of the Archdiocese of Chicago and elsewhere, for there are no public masses, a painful but necessary gesture of care for the health and well-being of those who could be susceptible to infection by the mysterious and frightening new coronavirus. Its relentless spread has led to a number of unprecedented shifts in our lives, some more remarkable than others.
Two days ago, I stopped in a local supermarket to pick up a few perishable items for the days ahead. I was startled to find desperate shoppers overloading their carts with bottled water, bathroom tissue, and breakfast cereals. I was more startled to see rows of empty shelves. (Hint: it would be a lot less expensive and far better for the environment to invest in a home water-purification set such as ZeroWater, which removes lead, other metals, and particulates from ordinary tap water. Bottled water is vastly more expensive in the long run and the empty plastic bottles extremely costly to the environment. And, after all, much of it is just tap water anyway.)
By a curious, not to say divine, coincidence, today’s readings from the liturgy focus on the gift of water. The first reading recalls an episode from the accounts of the long desert pilgrimage
of the Hebrews as they wandered from Egypt to the promised land of Canaan. Famished, nearly crazed with thirst, they are on the point of rebellion when Moses calls on God’s help. Told to strike the nearby rock-face with his staff, Moses unleashes a torrent of water. The Hebrews were not only frequently inclined to doubt God’s promises, but were sometimes rocked by strife and discord, which is why Meribah and Massah are used to name the place “the Waters of Contention and Testing.” And yet God takes pity on them and produces water from solid rock.
The connection with today’s theme in the second reading is not hard to see, but Paul spells it out for us. As with the desperate Hebrews, “…God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” Hope, he writes, “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” The word Paul uses here, ‘ekxéo’ in Greek, literally means to pour out, and specifically water or blood. Paul’s letter to the Romans takes up that theme again, and refers to the Holy Spirit in much the same terms that Jesus uses in the gospel of John, as flowing into us like a river of love. This is the living water that becomes a spring within a person for a thirst that can never be fully quenched, the thirst for the living God.
This brings us to the fascinating encounter between Jesus and the nameless woman of Samaria in the third reading, one of the longest sequences in John’s gospel. It takes the form of a drama in which Jesus, tired from traveling with his disciples through what was in fact hostile territory, stops at the famous Well of Jacob. While his companions are off hoping to find something to eat, Jesus involves himself in a friendly, even humorous, exchange with a local woman from “Sychar” – probably Shechem, the major city of the Samaritans, which could have supported a population large enough for the kind of goings-on the lady was involved in. She has come with her bucket to draw water.
Jesus asks her for a drink, an unthinkable request for a respectable Jew, especially in Samaria. The Samaritans had violently resisted the rebuilding of the Temple after the exile and had even sided with the Seleucid Greeks during the great oppression of the Jews a hundred and fifty years earlier. Their mutual hatred was fierce and enduring. Jesus himself had received inhospitable treatment from a Samaritan village on a previous occasion, and one of the deadliest insults his own people threw at him was calling him a Samaritan.
The climax of the scene comes when after some clever bantering, the woman finally challenges Jesus by referring to the ancient promises of a Savior. She was no religious simpleton. And Jesus’ response is astonishingly brief and unparalleled even in John’s gospel: “I am he, who is speaking to you” [John 4:26]. ‘Ego eimi’…
It is worth noticing how shocked Jesus’ disciples were on their return, not only that he was talking with a Samaritan, but a lone woman of dubious reputation in a public place. Worse still, he was asking her for a drink of water. In both respects, he had violated the limits of respectable behavior, but had also incurred ritual impurity. Somehow, that didn’t matter at all. In fact, the selection of a Samaritan, especially a woman of questionable reputation, to be Jesus’ contact and then his herald becomes a critical moment in John’s gospel. She is a model believer, in fact. She hears the word of God, believes it, then brings it to others, just as Mary Magdalene would do after the Resurrection. And in this case, the other Samaritans believed her and kept Jesus there teaching for two days.
The conversation moves from water and drinking to food. The disciples appear to have been able to buy something and have brought it to share with Jesus. He seizes the moment to make a number of pointed remarks about evangelization – preaching the good news which is far more urgent than supplying food and drink. Another theme thus emerges from the watery surface of today’s readings, a pointer toward what today we call the ministry of reconciliation: overcoming barriers of race, creed, gender, and whatever divides people against each another, whether nationally or internationally or just within our families. Jesus is inviting us to strike the stone surface of our hearts so that they will soften and flow with compassion and love for all human beings, especially the despised, the outcast, and above all, our enemies.
Shechem, by the way, was almost totally destroyed by the Romans in the year 67, including at least most of what was probably a growing Christian community, one that perhaps grew from the encounter in this story. But the way of Christ remains the way of peace, of love, of forgiveness and reconciliation. So may God’s Spirit pour love into our hearts and through them, that we may become peace-makers, not war-makers, that we may turn from violence to justice, from oppression to assistance, from suspicion and hatred to trust and love, and even from hoarding to sharing. It’s all foolish, of course, and probably leads toward trouble. It led Jesus to the cross. And the funny thing is, he expects us to follow him there.
In years to come, the spring of this year is more likely to be remembered for the outbreak of the new coronavirus and COVID-19, the acronym for the disease symptoms associated with it, beginning last year, than even the ongoing political hullabaloo in this country pointing toward the elections of next autumn. In comparison, our observance of Lent may seem routine and in fact ordinary, but the message of this second Sunday is no less timely because it is timeless.
The central element in this triptych of scriptural passages is the account of the Transfiguration in Matthew’s gospel, one likely based on Mark’s and Luke’s accounts. (Mysteriously, there is no parallel passage in John’s gospel.) So important was this event in the view of later Christians that a special feast day was instituted to commemorate it, still one of the holiest celebrations in the eastern Orthodox Churches.
The framing narratives begin with God’s command to Abraham to leave Haran in what is now Turkey for a land of promise, the beginning
of the long pilgrimage of the Elect, the ‘Chosen,’ toward their spiritual destiny. For Christians the passage from the Second Letter to Timothy over two millennia later points to the fulfillment of that promise “manifested through the ‘epiphany,’ “the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” [2 Tim 1:10]. The prediction of the death and resurrection of Jesus knits the three readings together, a point made clearer in Luke’s account with the observation that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about his “exodus” which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem [Luke 9:31].
Typically, the disciples fail to comprehend the meaning of this prophetic moment, much as we are likely to do ourselves if distracted by current events, however pressing. And that’s why it is fitting on this second Sunday of Lent to be reminded of the significance of what happened there and what we are doing here.
As we ponder the events of the last three months, what strikes me about the gospel reading, is how exactly it affirms that the approaching suffering and death of Jesus robs death of its power and brings life and immortality into the clear light of glory. In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, which are echoed in today’s liturgy, Jesus had to enter his glory through suffering, the Passover or departure spoken of by Moses and Elijah: “For it was fitting that [God], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons and daughters to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering [Heb 2:10].”
The relevance for this Sunday in the “joyful season” of Lent is that by following Christ, taking up our own crosses daily, we are drawn ever more closely into his Passover, his departure into glory, even if, like him, we enter it fully only beyond the final curtain of life.
Each of the three gospel accounts relate that Peter proposed erecting three tents or “tabernacles,” a suggestion that might seem strange except for the fact that the Churches celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration in August, close to the Jewish Feast of Succoth or Tabernacles, the festival of the fruit harvest. The connection is important, because the principal offering at this feast was a basket of harvest fruits accompanied by the recitation of the great acts by which God delivered the Hebrews from captivity and their entry into Canaan, the land of Promise. The Book of Leviticus prescribes erecting huts or booths made of leafy branches as a reminder of the desert journey of the Hebrews [Lev. 23:39-43]. Many observant Jews still do this.
But even this Passover theme, and the fulfillment of promise that it commemorates, falls short of the truth revealed on that mountain. And here is where the clue is so important. If Jesus had to enter his glory through suffering, the “Exodus” or departure spoken of by Moses and Elijah, can we who profess to follow him expect a lesser, easier path?
According to today’s gospel, the tedium of trekking through a dark wasteland of testing and trial is broken by a shaft of light that leaps ahead from the Resurrection. For a brief moment, we see divine radiance shining through and around Jesus, standing between those other two wayfarers, Moses and Elijah, who were also holy mountain climbers, and there comes a voice…
Like Peter, James, and John, we hardly know what to make of all this. But there it is. Whatever happened on that mountain, the event itself was long and widely remembered. And as a reminder of human hope and a prelude of glory, this memory of Transfiguration comes at a moment both appropriate and opportune in Lent and in life, not least as we ponder how best to assist those who suffer wherever there is need for hope in the promise first made so long ago to a small tribe of pilgrims wandering in the deserts of the Middle East in search of a land of promise.
Love in the Time of Cholera, the great novel by Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, was published in 1985, about a generation ago as times are reckoned. Today we are beginning the observance of what one day may be called Lent in the Time of Covid-19. The mounting infection rate and the slow increase in the number of deaths outside of China and adjoining nations have sent tremors of fear around the world. Pope Francis‘ sniffles on Ash Wednesday made headline news.
The health crisis may pass quickly, as President Trump predicted, or it may worsen and spread, despite desperate measures to curtail it. If nothing else, this ‘novel‘ virus serves to underscore the time-worn injunction still sometimes heard when ashes are distributed on the Wednesday so appointed: “Remember, man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.“ (The more appropriate form, “Turn away from sin and believe in the gospel,“ truly indicates what Lent is all about.)
Even so, the Church reminds us through the coming season that this is a joyful time, an opportunity for reflection and amendment of life. It is not cause for dread and fear, but of hope, a reminder that redemption and salvation are not wishful thinking and idle fancies, but real possibilities.
“Lent” comes from the old English word ‘Lenten,’ which simply means ‘Spring,’ probably because the days are now lengthening. The word has no particular religious significance and might seem odd in the southern hemisphere where autumn is approaching. But centuries of Christian usage have lent it a sacred meaning, so to speak. From at least the fourth century, Christians celebrated these forty days as a special time of preparation for the great Paschal mysteries to come. The forty days are taken from the account in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels in which Jesus fasts and prays and through a series of trials begins to shape his public ministry by rejecting paths that would have led him away from the cross.
Each of the readings focuses on a “test,” a “temptation” if you will – a possible course of action that appears to be beneficial but
would lead to disaster.
In the story from Genesis, God did not test Adam and Eve in order for them to sin. Nor did the serpent lie to them so much as he explained why the tree had been forbidden. He knew what the fruit of the tree would do and cunningly told them so. And like so many of us faced with a prize beyond our reach, they coveted power, disobeyed God, and failed the test. That failure, St. Paul tells us, is the origin of sin. And it, too, set a pattern.
That is why withdrawing to a vantage point where we can begin to expose the allurements of the world is a necessary part of the spiritual path. It breaks the pattern. It allows us to see things in God’s light. And because we are so used to walking by other lights, the adjustment takes a little time.
Whatever happened out in the Judean desert in that long period after Jesus’ baptism, the gospel accounts in Matthew and Luke are carefully constructed, virtually rabbinical debates, between Jesus and his diabolical adversary. They are all but identical, differing mainly in the order of one of the “temptations.” The point is the same –neither power nor glory, neither fame nor personal welfare, must deter him from his path. The resolutions Jesus achieves are models for action, perhaps less for Jesus as presented in the gospels, as they are for us.
Lent presents a special opportunity to join Jesus in his wilderness journey, not only or even especially by fasting and other works of rigorous observance. While encouraging penitential discipline, the Church prefers having us read passages from the prophets, Isaiah in particular, who caution us against works of obvious piety. Jesus himself had little use for displays of penitence:
“…when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face” [Matt 6:16-17].
Our lenten discipline allows us to be proven, tested, assayed, scrutinized — by ourselves but also by the Spirit of God. If it is effective, like Jesus we will encounter the power and allurement of the world, sometimes in its least humane and unloving face. In some ways we will be confronted by Satan, the adversary. In all of this, we are supposed to feel drawn, pulled, lured. For it is by resisting that we gain clarity, strength, and direction for our return to the world.
The tests posed to Jesus that begin unraveling the coiled history of sin are as relevant to us today as they were in first century Judea. We are impelled to feed the hungry as Jesus fed the multitudes, but providing only for material needs misses the deeper, more urgent hunger. Social welfare is not enough. Astounding achievements may seem like invasions of the divine, but even miracles can lure us into mere admiration and complacency, leaving the real work undone. And there is always the lure of wealth and power, by means of which, we are convinced, we could really put things right, if only we had enough of them. Of course, there never seems to be enough. In time, if we are lucky, we will learn that all such means are not only dangerous, they also corrupting. Unless, that is, we put the Realm of God first. And then, as Jesus knew, the rest will follow.
In the end, no matter how many stages or trials we pass through, like Jesus we must eventually return to the world. That is the goal and purpose of the testing. We must go back into the home, the classroom, the marketplace, the laboratory, the courts, the hospital, the factory, the firehouse, the police station and the television station, but hopefully strengthened against the powers found there that can dull our spiritual sensibilities and blunt our efforts. For we have work to do there. It is called ministry.