Fifth Sunday of Lent
Homily by Father Alex McAllister SDS
We have another miracle taken from St John's Gospel for our consideration today, it is the account of the Raising of Lazarus. This miracle is unique to the Gospel of John and it is perhaps a bit puzzling as to why it was not included in the Gospels of Mathew, Mark and Luke.
It is not as if the writers of the Synoptic Gospels omitted the fact that Jesus could raise a person from the dead since they all record how Jesus raised Jairus' daughter and St Luke also contains an account of the raising from the dead of the Widow of Nain's Son.
One possible explanation for the omission is that since the Synoptic Gospels are considered to have been written well before John's Gospel it could have been that Lazarus was still around and it was not felt necessary for them to include such an obvious miracle. We know that a lot of details of Jesus' life had to be left out of the Gospels and it is obvious that each of the writers had to pick and choose very selectively from a vast amount of material.
Presumably Lazarus had already died for a second time when John got down to writing his Gospel and so he felt it worth recounting the story. But there may be other reasons too because John includes only seven miracles which he calls signs; namely, the Marriage Feast of Cana, the healing of the Royal Official's son at Capernaum, the healing of the paralytic at Bethesda, the Feeding of the 5,000, Jesus walking on the water, the healing of the man born blind and the raising of Lazarus. Apart from the Feeding of the 5,000, all of these miracles are unique to John.
My own belief is that the Synoptic writers were more concerned to write a straightforward narrative of Jesus life whereas John was more interested in seeing its theological significance. I think that John, writing a long time after the events, and having plenty of time to reflect on them, understood the significance of miracles such as the Marriage Feast of Cana with its Eucharistic overtones which the other Gospel writers were not able to see.
In the case of the Raising of Lazarus there is an additional reason for its inclusion, because John realises that it was the event which prompted Caiaphas to suggest to the Council that it was expedient for one man to die for the people. As it says in verse 53: ‘from that day they were determined to kill him.'
And so, in his Gospel, the Raising of Lazarus becomes the event which precipitates the Crucifixion. John, of course, is well aware that this raising from the dead of Lazarus is a very clear foreshadowing of Christ's own resurrection.
There are lots of interesting details which make John's account a very credible story. One of these details is the delay. After hearing the news of Lazarus' illness, Jesus stays two more days before leaving for Bethany. One can't help but think that this is quite deliberate and that Jesus knows that Lazarus will die in the meantime giving him the opportunity to raise him from the dead.
As we approach Good Friday we are invited by the Church to consider death. The death and raising of Lazarus shows us that Christ has definitive power over it. Realising that the Raising of Lazarus was the proximate reason for the arrest of Jesus helps also to understand the importance of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection as the definitive action which completely breaks the power of death in the world.
By his dying on the Cross and then by rising from the dead Jesus bursts through the ultimate barrier. By this action, he completely forgives us our sins and opens up for us the way to Eternal Life.
Here we have the very essence of the Christian faith. The death on the Cross of the Son of God and his resurrection from the dead is what brings us human beings our ultimate liberation leading us to our definitive union with God in heaven. It is this, the greatest of all the Christian mysteries, that we celebrate at Easter and which becomes for us the highlight of the whole year.
The account of the Raising of Lazarus is therefore an important preamble to the Easter story. And in it we see many aspects of the personality of Jesus, most notable of these being his great sensitivity towards Martha and Mary.
When Martha goes to greet Jesus, she does so with an admonition in her voice. She says, ‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died.' But she also expresses her faith in him when she adds, ‘But I know that, even now, whatever you ask of God, he will grant you.' It is as if she has, in a very polite way, invited him to raise her brother from the dead.
Jesus immediately responds saying that her brother will rise from the dead and then goes on to say, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.' This wonderful statement of his power which we repeat at every funeral must have filled her and those around with immense hope and expectation.
As the story goes on Jesus continues to show deep compassion to Martha and Mary and indeed his sigh as he enquires where Lazarus is lying communicates the fact that he really cares about their suffering and loss. Lazarus truly is his friend and he grieves for him just as much as anyone else does.
We see then that Jesus is a man who is completely at home with his feelings. He shows no reticence when it comes to expressing how he feels and he is easily able to show compassion and understanding of the feeling of others around him.
When Lazarus comes out of the tomb Jesus characteristically uses the words, ‘Unbind him, let him go free'. By these words, Jesus shows us that death is something that contains and restricts us while what he brings will ultimately release us from all our bonds.
In this way, we see that our resurrection will be the ultimate granting of liberty to us. It will allow us to soar freely and be united with the one who is the source of all freedom, the source of all life and happiness.