It seems a bit strange that the Church presents us with this gospel reading today on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, it seems to be clearly about the resurrection and yet we haven't got there yet, we are still plodding through Lent and have to get through Maundy Thursday and Good Friday before we get to the resurrection. What's going on; have the Church's liturgical engineers got it all wrong?
Can I suggest that this text is more about death than resurrection? After all, Lazarus isn't walking around today; he had to undergo another death. This text is more about our life and death here and now rather than about the resurrection. We will have time enough to consider the resurrection when we get to Easter Sunday and the weeks of celebration afterwards.
St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, in his book on the Spiritual Exercises suggests that when we come to consider a particular Gospel passage we should put ourselves in the place of each character in turn and use our imagination to see how we would feel in the circumstances. This can be a most revealing exercise.
How about putting yourself in the place of Lazarus? You are dead to everything and then you hear a voice: 'Come out, Lazarus!' You look around and there you are lying in a tomb swathed in bandages and surrounded by darkness.
If we ask ourselves how we would feel the answer, of course, would be different for everyone but I think we might be surprised at how many of us would say: 'Thanks Lord, but I'd prefer to stay where I am.'
By putting ourselves in Lazarus's place we might feel we are unable to move or perhaps we might become aware of how tomb-like our present way of life really is. This exercise might arouse in us a sense of hope; rekindle a longing for freedom which has perhaps been buried for years.
Putting ourselves into the place of a character from scripture can awake all kinds of thoughts within us and lead us to turn to God in prayer with new words on our lips. And yet it is something so simple that we are surprised that we never thought about it ourselves.
I think that this Gospel reading is placed here in Lent to help us to realise that we have to live this life to the full and that it is often only through experiencing death that we are shocked into it. This can happen to us in all sorts of ways; often it can happen through a loss or bereavement, it might be through a religious experience, or a meeting with someone significant. It may be a terrible mistake that we have made or an experience of suffering. It is amazing how often it takes something negative to make us realise how much there is that is truly positive and worth living for.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the great writer and great Christian, was implicated in a plot to assassinate the Tsar of Russia. He was not one of the plotters but he was on the fringes of a group that wanted to overthrow the established order. The plot was uncovered and he was arrested and tried, found guilty and sentenced to death. He put in an appeal even though the chances of getting a reprieve were non-existent.
In the meantime, he was sent to a prison camp in Siberia where he experienced some of the harshest conditions known to man. His appeal was turned down and he was given a date for execution. The day came round and he was put up against the wall to be shot. But at the very last moment a messenger arrived with word from St Petersburg, his sentence was commuted to four years penal servitude.
Dostoyevsky experienced a resurrection. He was a dead man; the book he wrote about his prison life is called 'The House of the Dead', and the title literally sums up his experiences. He was dead; he regarded himself dead, because just waiting for death like that can be considered even worse than being dead. And then he was alive. And although he had to endure very harsh conditions he was alive, and he saw everything in a new way. He was able to live life to the full.
Dostoyevsky experienced life because he experienced death and this is what made him a truly great writer. A writer who has been able to get inside our souls and in his writing has explored some of our deepest feelings and emotions.
This Gospel is not here on this particular Sunday to get us to focus on the resurrection of the body and life everlasting; that comes on Easter Day. This Gospel is here to get us to wake up from our sleep and to realise that we have some living to do. We are supposed to be Christians. We are supposed to be followers of Jesus, the best man who ever lived, the only man who ever fully lived. The only man who really understood how to live.
And if we dare to accept the title Christian then we had better take a few lessons in living. We had better stop moaning and groaning and looking over our shoulder at others and saying: 'Would you look at her, who does she think she is?'
Stop putting a wet blanket over everything and live a bit. God has given us this wonderful creation and all these wonderful people around us, so let us open our eyes and talk to our neighbours and enjoy ourselves. We see the signs of spring all around us, and yet it is we who should be the signs of spring to our neighbours and friends and workmates all through the year.
But, of course, this is very hard for us. We have had years of training not to get above ourselves, not to think well of ourselves, not to enjoy ourselves. And the Church itself, with its penchant for rules and regulations, has played its full part in this process. Most of us have long experience of being pressed down and having our individuality and creativity squashed out of us.
I can give you countless examples of people who have experienced a resurrection in their lives. One of our own previous Provincial Superiors was a dead man. He had a very tricky heart operation which took ten hours. Afterwards he saw things very differently.
I know a man in one of my previous parishes who lost his wife and one of his own legs in a car accident. He had four young children. But he was determined to do his best for them. He told me: 'I painted that skirting board lying on my belly.' He brought those children up and was so proud of them it was unbelievable. He walked two miles each week to cheer up someone else who had lost a leg and was in the depths of depression.
There are dozens of examples. And we have a few in the Gospel today, apart from Lazarus himself. Look at Martha and Mary; they both blamed Jesus for letting Lazarus die. Sounds incredible doesn't it? And yet it is there in the text. But when they hear Jesus speak their faith is restored.
But as we say Sunday after Sunday: We don't experience Christ in a vacuum. We don't find him when things are bowling along as usual and we are keeping our head down. We meet him in suffering, we meet him in encounters with others, we meet him in challenging situations, we meet him when we are vulnerable, we meet him basically when our defences are down and we are open and receptive.
And he shows us the way. And the way is to be like him. And that means getting close to people, it means living for others, it means healing the sick, it means carrying other peoples burdens, it means loving the poor, it means being close to the Father in prayer, it means dying to self so we can rise to new life in him.
I heard about a sign outside a funeral parlour in Brooklyn it said: Why walk around half dead when we can bury you for seventy-five bucks? The question we need to ask is: Why walk around half dead when we have new life in Christ?