Fifth Sunday of Lent
Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; Romans 8:8-11: John 11:1-45
To accompany today’s gospel of the resurrection of Lazarus, the liturgy presents us with a summary of a symbolic resurrection story from Ezekiel 37. The summary is the sequel to the well-known Vision of the Dry Bones. Ezekiel was a priest and prophet. He was probably among the 8,000 exiles taken captive to Babylon after the first fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, in 598 B.C. See 2 Kings 24:16. His ministry as prophet (spokesman for the Lord God) among the exiles began in 591 B.C. His last dated prophecy (oracle) is dated in 571 B.C. Chapter 1 of Ezekiel begins with his visionary call on the banks of the River Chebar in Babylon (Iraq). He receives a second commission at the beginning of chapter 33. Among the visions and oracles that follow is the Vision of the Dry Bones in chapter 37. This should be read by all, not only because it is Scripture, but for the entertainment. This vision is the biblical source for the great Negro Spiritual, “Dem Bones Gonna Rise Again.”
Immediately after the dry bones that had filled the valley assembled themselves, were covered with flesh and skin, and brought to life, the Lord himself interpreted the vision to Ezekiel, whom he always called “Son of Man,” that is, “Human.” Our first reading therefore is the Lord’s own interpretation. Recalling that God’s people were in exile is necessary to understand the interpretation. The bones’ return to life represents not a resurrection from physical death, but a return to Jerusalem and Judea from exile in Babylon. That was the original meaning. However, when the Lord’s interpretation is used in conjunction with the story of the Lazarus’ resurrection, it takes on new meaning as a preview of the general resurrection Christians believe will take place at the end of time. The resurrection of Lazarus has a similar purpose — a preview of Jesus’ power over death in the general resurrection, as he had earlier claimed in John 5:25-29.
Unexpectedly, the Responsorial Psalm 130 does not speak of a resurrection of the dead. It is a Psalm of repentance, humility, and a plea for forgiveness. It is one of the psalms called the Seven Penitential Psalms. When one asks for a favor, a good approach is flattery, just like Jesus taught us to do in the Our Father. The Psalmist notes that God is so great, that if he took notice of our sins, we could not survive (stand). “But with you is forgiveness, which brings about our respect for you.” The theme of the second reading, from Paul to the Romans, is definitely about resurrection from the dead. At the beginning of the Letter to the Romans, Paul taught us about the role of the Holy Spirit (“the Spirit of holiness”) in raising Jesus from the dead. In today’s second reading he extends the meaning of the presence of the Holy Spirit, “If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to our mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.”
We come to the third of the three great instructive gospels used to prepare candidates for baptism — the story of the resurrection of Lazarus from death to life by the power of Jesus. John introduces us to a family of three siblings, Martha, Mary, Lazarus. Their home on the east slope of the Mount of Olives seems to have been Jesus’ home whenever he worked in Jerusalem. John notes that Jesus loved all three of them. A message from the sisters, “The one you love is ill.” Jesus teases his disciples in John’s construction of a little dialogue between them and Jesus, in which “sleep” becomes a metaphor for physical death. (It may be pointed out the Greek word for a bedroom or dormitory, koimeterion, is the origin of our English word ‘cemetery.’)
Lazarus had actually died (fallen asleep). Jesus arrives in Bethany, the hometown of the three siblings. From Bethany to Jerusalem — two miles was far enough for Jesus’ safety from his homicidal enemies in Jerusalem. His first encounter is with the more active sister Martha. John, the author, constructs a dialogue between the two as a further insight into death and resurrection and the power of Jesus over both, as Martha notes, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” then a hint of her faith in Jesus’ power, “but I know that whatever you ask of God, he will give you.” A promise, “Your brother will rise,” which she understands as the general resurrection in which many Jews believed. A proclamation, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” The author of the gospel gives to Martha a major profession of faith, similar to Simon Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus in Matthew 16:16. John is noted for his equal treatment of women and men in matters of faith and fidelity to Jesus. A second encounter: Jesus and Mary of Bethany. John uses this encounter just as he used the encounter of Jesus and Martha — to teach the Christian belief in Jesus’ power over death.
Jesus’ human emotions overwhelm with grief as he asks where the body was entombed. Then the famous statement, “Jesus wept!” Even God weeps with us in our sorrow! Bystanders note, “See how he loved him.” Jesus’ love for Lazarus has now been stated three times. Is this a hint that the mysterious “Beloved Disciple” in the Gospel of John is Lazarus? Jesus’ human emotions again are on display as he comes to the tomb. He orders the removal of the stone which covered the entrance to the burial place. They warn him, “He stinketh,” as the old and correct translation says. Why the odor? Lazarus died four days ago. Common belief was that the soul or spirit hovered over the body for three days, then departed, allowing decay to take over. Jesus prays, even though he knows the Father gave him power over death. The climactic moment: “Lazarus, come forth (from death).” The final statement of the One who has power of life and death, “Unbind him and let him go.” John notes that some bystanders “began to believe in him.” The candidates are ready for baptism!