Fr Neil’s homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent


Again, we have a very long reading from the Gospel. To help us grasp what’s going on, we have to cast our minds back to last week’s reading and Jesus’ conflict with not only the Pharisees but actually, as John says, the Jews, in relation to the blind man. Jesus upsets them by pointing out that it wasn’t the blind man who was truly blind, it was they, the Pharisees and “the Jews” who were blind for they could not see the presence and work of God what was before them. 

Now in saying “the Jews”, John and the Scriptures are not meaning the entire Jewish race: Jesus was a Jew; his blessed Mother was a Jew; the disciples were Jews; Mary and Martha and Lazarus were Jews. The reference is really about the ongoing conflict that Jesus had with the ‘Judeans’, which included the Pharisees and the people of Judea in and around Jerusalem. These southern Israelites thought they were more pure and more religious than the rather dubious people from the north, from Galilee. Jesus is seen as coming out of Galilee, and that was one of the reasons why they really struggle to accept who Jesus truly is — “Can anything good come out of Galilee?” was a common phrase in the south.

Having got something of the context of this story, we next have to ask why Jesus acts the way he does when he is told that the person he loves is ill and is likely to die? We are told he loves Lazarus very much, and yet he waits two days before going! It’s counter-intuitive: it’s not what we would do. If we have a loved one who is dying or desperately ill, we’d drop everything. We wouldn’t say, “I’ll carry on with my lectures for the next three days,” or “I’m at a clergy conference and I don’t want that disturbed; I’ll see them at some point when I get back.”

One can put forward a case that as Bethany is only just outside Jerusalem which is the centre of those who would like to kill him, he delays in an act of self preservation. Thomas’ response when he does announce that he is going, “let us go that we might die with him,” is telling and backs this theory up. However, this wouldn’t be the first time a disciple as misunderstood what Jesus intended. Something far deeper is going on here. We are told that Jesus loves Lazarus and his family deeply, and it is this love that stays his hand from leaving immediately. What is the nature of this love and its end?

But there is a twofold mystery to the dying and raising of Lazarus from the dead: the first is that Jesus not only heals, not only opens the eyes of the blind, but has power over sin, and death itself. Not even death can hold back the power of Christ, who calls us to life. Even if I die, he has the power to raise me up, he has the power to bring new life to me, which reveals the depth of his profound love. what is the greater gift, to have your eyes opened or to be raised from the dead? Which has the greater promise? This is his great gift and act of love for Lazarus.

The second mystery is more difficult for us to grasp. Somehow, to follow Jesus and to be his friend requires us to enters into his suffering that we might enter more fully into his life. 

Think about the disciples; his own Mother, our Blessed Lady, who has a sword pierce her own heart; and all the great saints: look at their lives — they are never straightforward. There is always struggle, persecution, suffering, martyrdom, rejection, and the carrying of great illnesses. To be a saint of God is to accept an invitation to enter into the Passion of Christ himself. Lent and Holy Week forcefully reminds us that to take hold of the gift of the resurrection, we must first travel the Way of the Cross. It is only through Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, that we can experience the resurrection life of Christ Jesus.

We see this in reality with Lazarus. Mary and Martha know that Jesus can do wondrous things, they know something of the resurrection, but this is the point that Jesus wants to teach. There is a last day; there is a rising of the dead; but he wants them to understand that he is the Resurrection and the Life. Resurrection is not an event but a person. It is Christ himself who is that hope. No other has power over death. No other can raise to life. That Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life is demonstrated here, in the very reality of Lazarus’ death and rising again.

It is not insignificant that Lazarus is in the tomb for four days. Jewish belief at the time was that after being laid in the tomb, it was three days before the soul properly departed from the body. The Jewish practice was not to embalm; they used spices against the smell, and once the body had decomposed they gathered the bones into an ossuary. Martha, ever-practical, tells Jesus that after four days, “it’s going to be a bit smelly.” 

It is on the fourth day, once Lazarus is truly dead, that Jesus reveals — even more powerfully than last week — who he truly is. He reveals the loving communion with his Father in heaven through prayer, and he speaks the word, “Lazarus, come out!”

It is a mystery for us to grasp: Christ holds our life, and it is in him alone that we experience something of that new life now, not just on the last day. We too can enter into communion through prayer — especially at this particular time, with everything around us and the restrictions we need to accept; with people dying whom we seem powerless to help. We might say “What is there to do? I’ll just pray.” But that is the first thing to do! It is a communion with the Father; a conversation with God, with our Lord Jesus, and an invitation for him to enter into our lives and allow him to work his good grace through us. Even in the midst of death, we know that he has triumphed, and his love is stronger even than the grave.

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