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Fifth Sunday of Lent

April 6, 2014

April 2, 2014

Readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130:1-8;

Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

"Making the Impossible Possible"

I have always been afraid of the cemetery. The sight of tombs at a graveyard simply scares me day or night. Consequently, the visit to the tomb of Lazarus in Bethany has never been my favorite part of study in the Holy Land. The entrance into the tomb is narrow and via a flight of uneven rock-cut steps that immediately descends into an antechamber. From there more steps lead to a lower chamber that is believed to be the resting place of Lazarus. The chamber is dark and damp, always giving me an eerie feeling. As a result, I am usually the first one to exit the chamber, always feeling greatly relieved for having come out of the tomb unscathed.

The Scripture readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent invite us to come out of our place of captivity and to place our trust and hope in God who can transform death into life and can make the impossible possible. Interestingly, both the first and Gospel readings portray scenes from the graveyard where death seems to rule because of the absence of life or God. Yet, Ezekiel's vision of dry bones coming to life provides incredible hope for Israel's sorry predicament as captives in Babylon. When everything seems lost and lifeless, God summons God's people from their graves, restoring them to life and bringing them home. As God's "Chosen People," they are no longer lifeless bones strewn aimlessly like the rest of humanity without God.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus comes to the graveyard and commands Lazarus to "come out" of the tomb. At Jesus' command, the dead man comes out still fully wrapped in a cloth. The miracle ends with the startling picture of a dead man walking out of the tomb with bound hands and feet.

The story of the raising of Lazarus is the seventh climatic sign of John's Gospel (11:1-45). In this story, Jesus solemnly declares that he is "the resurrection and life," which is the fifth of seven "I am" sayings (ego eimi) found in John (6:35; 8:12; 10:7; 10:11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1). As a conclusion to the Book of Signs (1:19-12:50), this masterfully interwoven narrative and discourse serves as a bridge between Jesus' ministry and his "hour," namely his death and resurrection.

The story shows contrasting portrayals of discipleship in this Gospel. The disciples' identification of Jesus as "Rabbi" shows their limited understanding of him. Thomas' response, "Let us also go to die with him," clearly manifests his inability to fathom the deep meaning of the event. In contrast, the dialogues between Jesus and Martha and Mary demonstrate extraordinary faith and correctly identify who Jesus is. Martha's solemn confession of faith, "You are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world," matches or even supersedes the confession of Peter in the Synoptic Gospels. 

Mary does not need any introduction. The narrator establishes her privileged position in the family (vv.1, 45) and identifies her as "the one who anointed the Lord" (v. 2), which she will perform in the next chapter (12:1-8). When she finds out that Jesus is summoning her, she responds immediately to his call, like the sheep answering to the voice of the Good Shepherd (10:3-16). Before she could form a word from her lips, she does him homage. Mary's attitude and action demonstrate genuine respect and complete trust in Jesus as the resurrection and the life. She shows hope where there is despair. Her faith seemed to have deeply affected Jesus, causing him to weep and underscoring the intensity of his emotion, which is rarely seen in the Fourth Gospel.

Jesus also cries out to each one of us to "come out" of our darkness and fear so that we might truly live in perfect union with Jesus as he is with the Father. Unlike the male disciples, but more like Martha and Mary, may we move from our traditional and inadequate understanding of Christ and humbly fall down at the feet of Jesus, believing and confessing that he is the resurrection and the life. Interestingly, St. Paul in the letter to the Romans also spoke of the impossible becoming possible. He invites us to come out or depart from the flesh in order to live in the Spirit of Christ. Living in or according to the Spirit rather than the flesh is choosing God-centeredness over self-centeredness. With a renewed spirit of Lenten hope, may we no longer live as lifeless bones strewn aimlessly in an arid wasteland where there is no life and no God. Rather, with God we believe that all things are indeed possible!

vanThanh Nguyen, SVD
Associate Professor of New Testament Studies

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