Reflection: the Fifth Sunday of Lent

Chinese Mass:Every Sunday 2:15 p.m.

Our Lady of the Assumption RC Church, Assumption Priory, Victoria Park Square, Bethnal Green E2 9PB (map)

After Mass you are welcome to join the community for a tea gathering

Bible study/sharing every Saturday (2:00-4:00 p.m.) at Notre Dame De France Church, 5 Leicester Place WC2H 7BX (near See Woo Chinese Supermarket, Leicester Square tube station)

Talk and discussion meeting First Monday of every month (4:00-6:00 p.m.) at Notre Dame De France Church


[John 11:1-45]

This week’s gospel is the story of Lazarus and of his two sisters, Mary and Martha. These are not new characters in the gospels and we have met them before on other occasions. John, the gospel writer kindly reminds us that Mary is the same Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair. John also tells us that Lazarus was the man whom Jesus “loved”. We also know from another text that once, Jesus was a guest at their house and Martha complained to him that Mary was not doing her bit to help her with the house chores and receiving guests … but instead she was sitting there at his feet listening to what he had to say … So we can clearly see that Jesus had a special close relationship with these three siblings. We are also told without any restraints that Jesus loved Lazarus, Martha and Mary.

The gospel story today starts by telling us that Lazarus, the man Jesus loved, was sick. While the sisters were preoccupied with activities surrounding the fact that their brother is going to die and therefore the end of everything for them, as soon as Jesus receives this sad news, he sees in it the opportunity to display the glory of God and at the same time, the glory of the Son of Man. Contrary to what one would expect, the news that Lazarus was sick did not seem to outwardly ‘move’ Jesus at all and in fact, we are told that Jesus stayed where he was for two more days. It was therefore on the ‘third’ day (notice it is the same day that God intervenes as it will happen to Jesus’ own resurrection!) that Jesus went to Bethany, to his friend’s house. One can clearly see that the gospel writer did not even try to hide how Lazarus’ resurrection very closely reflects that of Jesus’ own resurrection. Here, we have for example the disciple’s remarks about the Jews wanting to kill him and Jesus’ answer about the day and the night. One can also see that Lazarus resurrection, like Jesus’ own resurrection, would be the moment when those around him would believe and have faith. At the same time, we have Thomas’ comment about ‘dying with Lazarus’ showing how even they were not on the same understanding and wavelength as Jesus’.

The next thing we are told is that ‘Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days already’ and many Jews were going to the sisters to sympathise with them over their brother’s death. Lazarus’ death, in a way, meant also that the sisters themselves were ruined. For who is now going to work? … who is now going to earn money? … and who is now going to be there to protect and defend them?…

When Martha, the eldest of the two sisters heard that Jesus was near the village, she went to meet him while Mary remained in the house. It appears that Martha, on hearing about Jesus, must have, in a way, overcome the loss of her brother, while Mary was still grieving and therefore remained in the house. On seeing Jesus, Martha tells Jesus that had he been there, Lazarus would not have died. It almost seems as if she was blaming her brother’s death on Jesus’. But despite all this grief and anger, she still continued to show that she believes because deep down she knows that whatever Jesus asks of God, He will grant it. At Jesus’ assurance that Lazarus will rise again, Martha shows that she believes in the resurrection … but on the last day. Once again, Jesus has to explain to her that he is the resurrection and those who believe in him, they will live forever (spiritually). At the affirmative answer that she believes that he is the Christ, the Son of God, she leaves Jesus to go and call her sister. She tells her that Jesus, the Master, wants to see her. We are told that followed by other Jews, Mary quickly went to meet Jesus. Once again, she threw herself at his feet and repeated her sister’s words: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ At this point Jesus no longer enters into explanation about faith. Now it was time to put faith into practice. With Martha, Jesus was ready to explain with words what it means to believe, but with Mary, Jesus had to show her the effects of faith! At this moment the commotion has reached its highest point. We are told that Jesus wept and with a sigh that came straight from his heart he asked where they had put Lazarus. Jesus was led to his burial place which was “a cave with a stone to close the opening” – again, another similarity with Jesus own burial!

Jesus gave orders that they are to take the stone away, but Martha who had said that she believed shows some hesitation and insists that it has been four days since her brother was buried (and would therefore start to decompose/smell) … Although in a gentle way, Jesus rebukes Martha and reminds her of the faith that she had just professed some time before. He reminds her that God can always intervene, whenever there is the need. The mention of ‘the fourth day’ here is a reminder of the statement that on ‘the third day’ God intervenes (as he did in Jesus Resurrection and in other texts). In this particular context ‘the fourth day’ means that even though the third day had passed without the intervention of God, God would still show his might, whenever the need may be.

We are told that once the stone was taken away (it was not only moved, but completely taken away!) Jesus speaks with the Father in heaven, thanking him that the Father hears him when he speaks so that they believe that it was him who sent Jesus. After this prayer, Jesus directly calls Lazarus to attention and orders him to “Come Out” and, we are told, “the dead man came out, his feet and hands still bound with bands of stuff and a cloth still wrapped around his face”. Jesus now orders them to ‘Unbind him, let him go free.’

The stone, the cave, the tomb, the bandages, the cloth … these are all symbols of the heavy impediments for faith that keeps us from letting ourselves freely go into God’s hands. Jesus invites us to come out to him and be free in him. In fact, it seems that death was binding Lazarus (which is true) forbidding him to be free. What Jesus had said to Martha has now been proved true right in front of their very eyes: “I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die”. The story ends by telling us that “many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary and had seen what he did believed in him”. By saying that these visitors came to visit Mary, she must have been the more popular of the three i.e. even more popular than Martha her sister and even her brother Lazarus!

Jesus is putting that same question he asked Martha to us: “Do you believe this?” Let us answer in the affirmative and try to live up to our faith.

“Lord, you are the resurrection and the life. Like Martha, help us to admit that we know that whatever you ask of God he will grant you. Give us more faith and help us to doubt less in your merciful providence and love. Thank you Lord!”

Fr. Jesmond Pawley, OFM Conv.

(Permission to reproduce on this site by Fr. Jesmond, St. Patrick’s RC Church, Waterloo )

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