FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT (A) March 29, 2020

Ezekiel 37: 12-14; Romans 8: 8-11; John 11: 1-45

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

God is standing outside the tomb – this is the strong image that touches me in today’s readings. The tomb – our last stop on our journey to God. And what a terrible stopping-off-place it is! At American cemeteries the undertakers and grave diggers do their jobs well. The hole is dug, the excavated soil placed off to the side and the area surrounding the grave is covered with artificial green turf. (It looks like the astro-turf of indoor football stadiums.) Over the grave is a metal framed contraption and thick straps are hung from it to support the coffin. Family and friends remain in their cars until the workers ready the site with flowers. If the weather is foul, there is an awning to protect the mourners and the casket from rain or snow. When all is neatly arranged the mourners are invited to come to the grave site. The coffin is suspended over the grave, supported by that frame and straps. The grave diggers take their break off to the side, some grabbing a smoke during their idle moments. Soon they will be needed again, but not till after everyone has left.

The final prayers are said, each mourner takes a flower from the nearby floral arrangements, bids farewell to the deceased and places it on the coffin before they leave. But no matter how antiseptic the grave site and how orderly the process, we know what we are looking at – it’s a grave to which we are assigning one we have loved, perhaps all of our lives. Those nearby grave diggers will soon be placing our loved one into the earth and we will see them no more.

Of course, I know I am describing American, first-world funeral practices. In the poorest lands the body is wrapped in a simple cloth, or placed in a wooden coffin made by a family member, a grave is scratched out of rocky soil by friends, and perhaps a flower or two is left on the earth that has been scrapped back into the grave. But in our culture, most of us leave before we get to see the casket lowered into the earth. We can’t watch the final triumph of the grave as it claims our beloved dead. We also have our ways of camouflaging death with cosmetics and euphemisms. But no matter where and how we bury the dead, the grave finds us at our most vulnerable and seems to have its triumphant moments over us.

Hold this burial scene, the one you are most familiar with, in your imagination. Then look at the scriptures for today and see the graves in the first and third readings and hear the life-assuring words of the Romans passage. The scriptures assure us we are not alone at our most desolate moments. They don’t avoid recognizing our pain and voicing our questions and even our disappointment in God. "If you had only been here...." But while they acknowledge our grief and feelings of impotency, as we stare at death’s handiwork, the grave – they also tell us something unimaginable. The scriptures say that, in our most vulnerable moments, God stands with us at the grave and makes a promise of life that seems to mock the evidence before us. Death, by all logical conclusions, has defeated us. But God says, "NO!!!!" – in capital letters with a few exclamation points. As Ezekiel puts it, "Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people!" (Check out the text: it has an exclamation point, and should have a few more to emphasize the impact of those words!) Only God can speak with such authority and certainty, for we are in no place to make such a promise on our own.

Ezekiel is not writing to console a family or a few friends over the death of a loved one. He is writing for an entire people over the death of their nation and the destruction of their religious holy places. The prophet is speaking to the Jewish exiles in Babylon who have seen their beloved Jerusalem destroyed and their Temple desecrated. (587 B.C.E.) Using the vivid dead-bones vision (37: 1-10) Ezekiel evokes the hope that God can raise these people, these "dry bones," by means of God’s Spirit and Word. The prophet is God’s instrument for proclaiming this promise. Ezekiel’s vision isn’t addressing a final resurrection, but today’s reading suggests God will raise up the people who feel cut off, not only from their homeland, but also from God, as they languish in foreign captivity. Can God do the impossible and restore Israel, take the people home to Jerusalem and help them rebuild the Temple? Yes – God is that powerful, promises Ezekiel. "I will put my spirit in you that you may live and I will settle you upon your land."

Hearing Ezekiel address the people we wonder: can people leaving a loved one behind for burial rebuild their lives? Can a family hold together as a family when its mother or father dies young? When a sibling is tragically killed in a random act of violence, or an overdose? When a war causes civilian upheaval and displacement? Death has so many co-workers dealing out death in so many forms. What will happen to the survivors? Hear what God has to say: "I will settle you upon you land; thus you will know that I am God." Let’s see how else the promise is made and to whom. We turn to the gospel.

The story gets more personal in the gospel, for in it we get: a sick person who dies, a reprimand, an expression of faith in the impossible, weeping, disbelief, seeing the impossible and then coming to belief. In addition, Jesus will have to pay personally and dearly for this miracle, for it will intensify opposition to him and begin the scheming that leads to his own grave. While God doesn’t stand helplessly by Lazarus’ grave; this miracle of life will cost God dearly as well. Lazarus is Jesus’ friend and, as we hear this story, we are encouraged to believe that we are friends as well. As Jesus said earlier in John, "...an hour is coming in which all those in their tombs shall hear his [the Son of Man’s] voice and come forth." (5: 28) We friends of Jesus trust these words as we stand by the open graves of so many loved ones and anticipate that a similar grave awaits us as well.

Jesus is very much in charge here. No one can rush him, not even the urgent pleas of the dying Lazarus’ sisters. He risks the appearance of not being their true friend, of seeming unconcerned. Why does he wait so long? (And why are we also left with questions and doubts when a word from him could raise us from our death beds?) One thing is for sure – after the delay we know Lazarus is really dead! Practical Martha names the reality, "Lord, by now there will be a stench, he has been dead four days."

What a scene; the dead man emerging from the dark, dank tomb with his burial cloths dangling from his resuscitated body! Soon Jesus will suffer a violent death. They will also wrap him, as was their custom, in burial cloths and place him in a tomb. Another group of family and friends will stand by yet one more grave and peer into its coldness. They too will feel helpless as they huddle to comfort one another. But all is not totally lost. God will visit this grave and speak a word of life over Jesus and God’s Spirit will raise him up to a completely new life. Who could have imagined? With his resurrection all of us who suffer death will be given the gift of hope and respond, "We too will rise."

As we interpret this passage, note this about John’s gospel: the life God promises in Jesus is already present to the baptized. Our new life does not begin after we have breathed our last breath, or when our bodies are surrendered to the grave – it begins now. To call upon another verse from John, "I solemnly assure you, an hour is coming, has indeed come, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who have heeded it shall live. (5:25) We have new life in us even as we stare at the many grave sites in the course of our lives.

There are the deaths of family and friends, of course. But we also face death if we; lose our jobs; flunk out of college; get a crippling disease; lose our physical or mental strengths in old age; give up plans of being married and having children; have our last child go off to school, or get married, etc. Is new life possible beyond these and other dyings? In this life? The believer, hearing today’s scriptures, is encouraged to believe that God has not abandoned us at our graves and will call out our names, utter a life-giving Word and breathe into us a resurrecting Spirit. "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he/she dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believers in me will never die. Do you believe this?" And we respond with Martha, "Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world."

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings: