Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent

Jesus ‘cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, here! Come out.”’

The Gospels tell us that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus. They were friends. It’s a beautiful glimpse of how really human Jesus was. Here was this curious ménage à trois, two sisters and a brother – and he loved them. And his love made them holy: the Church recognizes all three as saints. They are celebrated in the liturgies of different traditions, Eastern and Western, Orthodox and Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran. 29 July is one date, 17 December is another. It’s possible to see how Martha and Mary were saints. But Lazarus? All he did was fall ill, die and smell. Yet he’s a saint – hope for us all! But surely a saint has to do something, be active? Well, on closer inspection, he was. ‘Lazarus, come out!’ ‘The dead man came out.’ Lazarus responded to Christ’s command. He obeyed. A most bewildering obedience it must have been, but he did it. He left the world of the dead. He came back to the world of the living. This is not resurrection in the full Christian sense: he was not transported to a new kind of life; he would die again. But he was raised. That was his obedience. So, here’s a first thought: every obedience in our life, every response to the clear call of the Lord, whatever form it may take, is a resurrection. And so it has always been. Lazarus did what the whole world did in the beginning and does every moment: coming out, coming forth from nothingness. God says, ‘Let there be…’ ‘And there is’. Lazarus did what Abraham did: who went as the Lord told him. He did what the people of Israel did at the Exodus. He did what they did after the seventy years of exile, when they left Babylon and returned to their own land, raised from their graves, as Ezekiel put it. Lazarus did what Mary did: ‘let what you have said be done to me’. He did what Joseph did after the angel told him to take Mary as his wife and assume responsibility for her child. ‘He rose from sleep and did what the angel said.’ He does what the prodigal son does in the parable, when he ways: ‘I will arise and go to my Father.’ He did what Jesus would do when he was raised from the Father before the dawn that Sunday. ‘My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready’, says the Psalmist. ‘I will sing, I will sing your praise. Awake my soul, awake lyre and harp, I will awake the dawn’ (Ps 56: 8-9). What are we about? What are we made for? What’s our first and last vocation? To be raised from the dead! Lazarus fulfilled that. He heard the word of the Lord – that basic biblical ‘thing’ – and he responded, body and soul. And that word spelt ‘resurrection.’ There is the core of holiness.

There’s no ‘any old Gospel’. But if there were it certainly wouldn’t be this one. It is the greatest of Jesus’ signs. It’s what precipitates his death. It has a sense of majestic movement. He waits in Galilee. Then he goes towards Bethany. Then he meets Martha outside the village, then Mary. Then he comes to the tomb. It builds to a climax. Then, again, these wonderful lines: ‘Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.’ ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life.’ ‘Jesus wept.’ ‘Lazarus, here, come out!’ ‘Unbind him, and let him go free!’

But let’s just stick with this one. ‘Lazarus, here, come out.’ In Greek, ‘Lazare, deuro, exo’. In Latin, ‘Lazare, veni foras!’ In English, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ ‘Lazarus, come out.’ ‘Come out, Lazarus, to my side!’ That last is a very suggestive one. A literal translation would be: ‘Lazarus, here! Out!’ It’s imperious. It’s ‘cried out with a great voice.’ It’s curt. It’s like someone bringing a dog to heel. It’s almost angry: not at Lazarus, but at the enemy death. This scene is charged with all the anger and sorrow of God at the destruction of humanity, with the passion that drove Jesus to the sacrifice of himself for us. This is the inner passion that turned the outer passion into a prayer for our resurrection. In one 19th c. painting, Jesus is standing before the tomb with his two hands outstretched towards the rising Lazarus: the gesture for praying over someone, the gesture of epiclesis that the priest uses over the bread and wine, asking the Father to send the Holy Spirit who is called the Lord, the Giver of life. Here is the living, life-giving Trinity swooping down like an eagle to rescue poor humanity. Earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus has said, ‘For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself…Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment’ (Jn 5: 26, 28-29).

‘Come out! Come here! Come out, beside me!’ Let’s take that to ourselves. In spring, the whole of nature is responding to that divine voice, to the word that holds it in being and gives it life. Lent and Easter are the same great voice, crying out to us, calling us forth. Let’s do a Lazarus! Leave our inner illnesses, leave our deadness, leave whatever is smelly in our life, let the bandages be taken off. Leave our anger and resentments, leave our obsessions and anxieties. Leave perhaps even our most cherished thoughts and desires. Lazarus appears once more in the Gospel. He appears at table with Jesus. We leave what leads to death, so as to live with Christ. Those who’ll be baptized and / or received at Easter are doing a Lazarus. They are leaving themselves, in a sense. They are entering into the communal life of the Church, to have their sins forgiven, share her faith, her sacraments, her love, her mission: to be beside Christ, to take their seat at his table. May all of us have this sense of God’s will as resurrecting us. May we all hear this voice. Maybe we have to wait for it: there’s the mystery of Lazarus’ four days in the tomb and the silence of Holy Saturday. But these are moments when the Lord, as it were, is simply breathing in before he cries out: ‘Come here, come out, come to my side! Don’t die! Live!’

(St Mary’s Cathedral Aberdeen, 2 April 2017)


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
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