By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
Lazarus, Martha and Mary were siblings, dear friends of Jesus who lived in Bethany, within walking distance of Jerusalem. The death of Lazarus, only recorded in John’s Gospel, was about to draw Jesus and his disciples to Bethany in the shadow of Jerusalem and with the specter of his own passion on the horizon.
Many forces are pressing upon Jesus and they are about to coalesce with the death of a dear friend.
Jesus was not immediately on hand when Lazarus died, and he and his disciples were faced with a difficult choice. The scripture states explicitly that Jesus dearly loved Lazarus, Martha and Mary, and his desire to be with them is understandable. However, one of his disciples, speaking for the rest, dissuaded him from going, reminding him that there were many who hated him, seeking to ensnare and kill him. At a deeper level Jesus knew that the death of a dear friend was going to reveal the depth of his identity in such a way that there would be no turning back.
Life and death, friends and enemies, love and hate, grief and hope swirled around Jesus, and out of this pressure cooker he prays aloud so intensely that heaven and earth were moved. At the tomb of Lazarus, with tears pouring out of him, his prayer to the Father reveals the love that is stronger than death. “Father I give you thanks because you have heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I have said it for the sake of the crowd who surround me, that they may believe that you have sent me.”
Martha had earlier professed in conversation with Jesus that he is the resurrection and life, and his prayer is that all can make this leap of faith.
In the next breath Jesus groans and shouts, “Lazarus, come out.” With the appearance of the dead man, the saving work of Jesus on behalf of his friend reaches its culmination, “untie him, and let him go free.”
This year the gospel of Lazarus is proclaimed on this weekend, the fifth Sunday of Lent, one week before the beginning of Holy Week. We too stand in the shadow of Jerusalem with the commemoration of our Lord’s passion and death on the horizon. Standing before the shadow of death we want to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the resurrection and life, and through him, and with him, and in him, our prayer is always heard. Standing in the light of the cross and resurrection, we want to know that through faith Jesus unties us and sets us free.
What are the forces in our lives that ensnare or enslave us, compromising or demolishing our freedom? Where do we need the power of Jesus to restore us and set us free? As he was about to resuscitate Lazarus from death back into life, Martha said to him, “Lord it has been four days; there is going to be a bad stench.” Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, understood such an odor when he stated that, “there is a stench to sin.”
What sin in our own lives fouls the fresh air of the light of faith? Has it been four days, four years, or possibly forty years? Our journey through Lent marked by prayer, fasting and almsgiving, is a walk we take with the Lord in order to know a greater freedom through the forgiveness of our sins, or to know a greater freedom by overcoming the paralysis of spirit prompted by fear, doubt and shame.
Sometimes there are more subtle forces at work that enslave us. At the very beginning of his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis addresses these currents of spiritual death. “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.
Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades… That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ.”
Enslaved in such a way, we can never really know the joy of the Gospel. “Untie him and let him go free.” Such life-giving words coming from the heart of God reveal the depths of our Lord’s love for all of us, and his desire to shatter whatever entombs us. Set free, we can know the joy of the Gospel, God’s will for us and for the world and we can unfold in the light of day.