Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 26, 2023
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Ezekiel 37:12-14
Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
Romans 8:8-11
John 11:1-45

Martha’s statement and Mary’s tears convey what all of us think and what all of us are feeling when death snatches from us a loved one. Mary’s tears are those of deep grief and fear at the death of her brother with only a sense that what was familiar, safe, and pleasant is now gone. Martha’s statement to Jesus speaks a firm knowledge based upon her clear perception of appearances. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Implied by this statement is the question, “Where were you?” “It’s only two miles away.” “Didn’t you know, and don’t you care?” Martha’s words and Mary’s tears each articulate our emotions that we experience in the face of the cruelty of death, “Lord, if you were here” (but you weren’t) he would not have died.” “You could have prevented this” (but you didn’t.). If you were here, your compassion would have saved Lazarus.

 “Where is the compassionate Jesus in today’s Gospel?” He shows up too late to heal Lazarus. Why does he wait for Lazarus to die? Does Jesus wait to show up late and allow Lazarus to die just so Jesus can make a point about Himself in raising Lazarus? That would not be compassion; that would be manipulation and not fitting for Christ. Jesus does not respond promptly and preempt the suffering of Lazarus and the grief of Martha and Mary. He has more to offer than that which only appears.

His compassion has much more depth to it, and it is the compassion He offers us and enables us to share. He enters the suffering of death, its anticipation, its grief, its meaninglessness as experienced on death’s terms, its poverty, its terror, its alienation, every dreg of its being the bitter fruit of sin. He does so and He redeems it. He redeems it by experiencing it and being so indignant over it that the line from the Gospel “became perturbed” does not justly translate the visceral repugnance that Christ feels in the presence of death. The actual word conveys that Christ emitted a visceral snort like a horse. Death and grief, like sin, though real, are not befitting of human beings and for human beings to die produces a compassionate indignance in God. Christ has been sent by the Father to conquer sin, to vanquish death and to heal grief. This story from the Gospel manifests that He is set to do just what the Father has sent him to do – He offers authentic compassion and not simply pity.

The American philosopher Paul Weiss once wrote, “Compassion has often been misunderstood as a kind of pity for the unfortunate. True compassion is the production of a unity which is oriented towards God because each of the beings approaches the other as one who is to be lifted out of the situation where the suffering occurs and dealt with as one whose true nature and destiny is to be understood in new terms.”

We find ourselves today in the first part, knowledge based on appearances, and the Spirit prompts us to enter and to accept a knowledge beyond all appearances, a knowledge based upon trust and love. This is Christian compassion. The proof of compassion is in the anguish that Jesus experiences for us and for all sinners. It is a type of indignation at the power of death. This is precisely what Jesus has been sent to heal and to conquer, as prophesied by Ezekiel.

We must recognize ourselves in the position of Lazarus on the threshold between darkness and light, between death and life, between sin and righteousness. We are on the cusp between light and dark, death and darkness behind us, light and life before us. At this threshold, the bindings of death and darkness hinder us, and we must recognize that we ourselves are not sufficient to answer the call; we need the assistance of others to answer the call of Jesus to leave the tomb, we need the help of the Church to unbind us.

Yet today we are faced with another question that surfaces when reflecting upon this Gospel story considering the circumstances of today. That question is, “Are we willing to come out of the tomb and to be released from its bindings?” What if when Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out, Lazarus had responded with a firm, “No!” Isn’t that what we do when we cling to death as a solution for our problems and when we cling ever more tightly to the bindings of sin that shackles us from the fresh air of compassion?

Christ offers us the compassion of His Cross and that alone can give us the willingness to respond affirmatively to His command to come out of the tomb. Even more than asking the Lord for His deliverance of us from sin and death, it is most imperative today that we ask Him for the willingness to be delivered and set free from our indifference and obstinacy. He offers us that gift of willingness in the sacrifice that we are about to renew and which we renew as our Daily Bread — the offering of His Body and Blood in exchange for our slavery to sin.

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