The Fifth Sunday of Lent
2020 – Cycle A
Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45
“Master, the one you love is ill”.
How true that is. For humanity is ill and Christ, “the lover of humanity” is just as among us now as he was with Martha and Mary. But is this Gospel primarily about the raising of Lazarus from the dead or is there something more fundamental lurking throughout the story?
Both sisters run out and address Jesus in the same way, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”. But since we only have their words, with what tone did they address Jesus?
Was it with anger? How would the sisters have felt if they knew Jesus seemed to have purposely waited two days upon hearing the news about Lazarus before he headed to Bethany? Why did he linger? Did they speak in frustration? Was it tinged with fear? What will happen to these two sisters in a male dominated culture without a man? Or was it simply with resignation in the face of death?
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But…”
And that “but…” makes all the difference in understanding how Martha spoke. “But even now [in the face of death, in the midst of my fears, my sadness, my grief] I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” What words of faith and trust in Jesus! …in their friendship and mutual love. “I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” What Martha expresses in words, Mary expresses through actions; she falls in humility and homage at Jesus’ feet and weeps.
Both express their deep faith and trust in Jesus at a very uncertain and fearful time in their lives. But it was not always that way. Listen to what Martha says, “I have come to believe that you are the Christ”.
There was a time in Martha’s life she didn’t know or understand who Jesus was. After how many meals in their home, conversations late into the night, through laughter and tears, the jokes and stories did it take for Martha to be able to say, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ…”?
Here is found the purpose of prayer and the sharing of a common sacred meal, the Eucharist, each and every Sunday.
Like the experience over time of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, prayer and the Eucharist allow us to come together to sit and converse with Jesus and his disciples so as to know Jesus intimately and for Jesus to know us. For a relationship with Jesus, as with anyone, is a day by day journey of our self-revealing to Jesus as he reveals himself to us. Only then will be able to say what no one can say for us, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ…I have discovered and now understand who you are!”
Thus the suspension of public Eucharist and the inability for us to gather around the altar/table can and should become an occasion for our spiritual growth. We need to draw what good we can from this experience of absence. “This [experience] also reveals that all our technology, which we tend to see as “the” solution, is insufficient, just a stopgap. It is a fascinating paradox that in this situation we both depend more on our technology and more deeply know its limits. As useful as it is (email, live-streaming, posted videos, etc.), it cannot actually put us in touch with one another. It only tides us over until authentic human communication – unmediated, face–to–face, person–to–person, can be recovered.”
There is no substitute for presence. We see this in the life of Jesus who never acts from a distance. It is all one–on–one, person–to–person, encounters. Because it is the only true way of getting to know a person. That is why Sacraments cannot be celebrated over technology or that watching the Eucharist on television will ever substitute for being present at the altar/table. Humans, Christians, need each other and therefore need to gather and encounter each other. It is in the encounter that we daily grow in trust, faith and hope with each other and so with Jesus. If we are to possess the same kind of deep trust and faith as shown us by Martha and Mary we need to spend time with Jesus in prayer and especially engaged at the Eucharist…like any dinner.
It is the only way we can come to answer the most important question posed to us by Jesus. It is the question that every person who has encountered Jesus; that every person who is considering following Jesus; that every professed Christian must answer, “Do you believe this?” “Do you believe I am resurrection and life?” No one can answer for us. Martha’s bold and simple declaration of “Yes, Lord.” cannot be claimed by any of us. We must make our own act of faith and trust in Jesus. Without that deep trust there can be no life. Consider that the raising of Lazarus is in some way dependent on the faith and trust of Mary and Martha.
Martha and Mary call us to that same trust today as our brothers and sisters, as humanity, is sick; as we pray for the healing for our sisters and brothers around the world; as we pray for physicians and nurses as we cry out: “Master, your sisters and brothers, the ones you love are ill”.