April 6, 2014
There was a knock on the door of the rectory. When the priest opened the door a stranger informed him that his dog had died and he wondered if arrangements could be made for a funeral. The priest said,
“I’m sorry about your loss but really my schedule is so full I don’t believe I could serve you at this time. Why don’t you try the Anglican minister just 2 blocks down the street?”
Stranger: “Oh, thanks for suggestions. Do you think I should give her a remuneration?
Priest: “Yes, I believe that would be on order.”
Stranger: “Would a fee of 5,000 dollars be about right?
Priest: “What’s that? Just a minute! Why you didn’t tell me that he was a Catholic dog?
The biblical readings in this Sunday Mass use the imagery of death and life in dramatic ways. Into the dry bones in the grave, the Lord puts his Spirit giving them new life. "You will live" is the promise given to the community of Israel. St. Paul also reflects on similar imagery, and he suggests that since we possess the Spirit of Christ we live differently, although we possess mortal bodies. The promise of new life is forceful and clear. The Gospel continues this contrast in the death and raising of Lazarus, a wonderful sign that points to the last days of Jesus himself. These scriptures are appropriate during these weeks of Lent when we struggle with the meaning of suffering and death, and when our hope in Jesus' word of life is put to the test.
Each Christian experiences the mortality of the body in pain, tiredness, limitations, and illness. Furthermore, the loss of a loved one powerfully reminds us of the absence associated with death and the profound wrenching we experience because of the finality of death. The Lazarus episode has many parallels to the universal human experience of suffering and death: we feel hopelessness, or doubt that anything can be done, as Thomas and the disciples, or we wish that someone were present to change the outcome, as did Martha and Mary. Friends weep with us in times of sorrow, comforting us by their presence, but the emptiness persists. Darkness is the true image for suffering and death, for it is the night through which we all must pass.
However, in each reading death is reversed by the Spirit of the Lord. The dry bones are revived; the unspiritual and mortal bodies are transformed; the dead come back to life. Death and absence are real, but they are not final. In each instance there is cause to weep and to grieve, but not to despair. In each instance there is suffering and death, but death is the opportunity to learn about real life, for death reveals the glory of God. Each of these biblical episodes points to the events we will celebrate in the Christian community during the next couple of weeks, namely the passion and death of Jesus. However, the irony remains because the death of Jesus gives life, and in the death of Jesus is his glorification, as John reminds us throughout the Gospel.
While we never fully grasp the mystery of death, each one is asked to respond in faith to the gospel message. Do we believe the word of Jesus that "whoever lives and believes in me will never die" (Jn 11:26)? Can we profess our faith as Martha did "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into the world" (Jn 11:27)? Can we reflect on this sign of raising from the dead and all the signs of the Lord's love looking beyond the sign to "see the glory of God" (Jn 11:40)?
Jesus, sent by the Father, reveals to us the real meaning of life and death. In these last weeks of Lent, each one can take the opportunity to examine the quality of his or her faith in the midst of suffering, and the extent of his or her hope in the face of death. Each one can also ask; why do we believe? At times, the temptation to look for the powerful signs is great and we believe because of these wonderful experiences. However, we are asked to look beyond the sign to the real meaning of the event. The signs point to Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God. Our faith is in him and in his word. If we reflect on these challenges to our faith, we will savour the meaning of this season and prepare ourselves for the joys of Easter.