By Fr. Richard Hinkley
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The Fifth Sunday of Lent, the penultimate before the glorious Paschal Triduum and Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord, is here and contains a great amount of material for our assimilation.
The Fifth Sunday of Lent ushers in the “mini-liturgical” season of Passiontide which includes the Fifth and Sixth Week (Holy Week) of Lent. In dioceses in the United States, as in much of the World, the practice of covering crosses and images throughout the church from now until the Easter Vigil is frequently observed. In addition, Prefaces I and II of the Passion of the Lord is used at daily Masses from now until Holy Thursday. The sobriety of all of these signs and prayers serves to heighten our awareness that the purpose and destiny of our Lenten observance is upon us, and as Laetare Sunday prompted us to recognize the ultimate joy that this destiny produces, the sobriety of Passiontide prompts us to prepare for this joy through a more intense desire for: conversion, horror for our sins, and devotion to the God who saves us through suffering.
In addition, the Fifth Sunday of Lent normally marks the Third and Final Scrutiny in preparation for the Baptism of the catechumens who are to be admitted to the Sacraments of Christian Initiation at the Easter Vigil. Obviously, things are out of joint this year, but whenever the Scrutinies are celebrated they are an intense summons to conversion and prayer of exorcism over the catechumens so that they may be all the more ready spiritually for their metamorphosis in Christian Initiation. At some point during the Fifth Week of Lent, at a special liturgy, the catechumens receive formally the “Our Father”, that is to say, they are formally entrusted by the Church with this the Lord’s Prayer, the recapitulation of the Gospel, in preparation for the Triduum.
Much is occurring in this Fifth Week of Lent, and such is the case too in the Sunday Gospel. The Raising of Lazarus, along with the gospel accounts of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well and the healing of the man born blind, constitutes the third of the Cycle A Sunday Lenten Gospel readings which have as their chief focus and theme Baptism into Christ. The dialogues and signs (the theologically charged word St. John uses to describe Christ’s miracles) from these gospels sacramentally clarify for us what the Lord intends to achieve perfectly through his Passion, Death and Resurrection. What do faith in and baptism into Christ give us? First, they bring an awareness of our desires, our sinfulness, and our hunger for God (3rd Sunday’s Gospel). Second, they bring about a new creation within us, a healing of spiritual blindness, and an illumination with the Truth (4th Sunday’s Gospel). Third, they bring eternal life (5th Sunday’s Gospel)
Like the whole of the Gospel of John, the gospel reading today exudes a rarified theological language and symbolism. The words, actions, time, place, and number of everything and of everyone is highly charged and significant. One of these elements on which I would like to focus is the number four. We know that Lazarus was ill. Christ was notified of this fact, but unlike in the case of the royal official’s son (Cf. Jn 4:43-54), whom Christ healed immediately upon being notified of his illness, Christ seemingly does nothing…. for two days. It is not until the third day (Cardinal Ratzinger notes in one work that in the Old Testament, the third day is the day of theophany, encounter with God) that Christ announces his plan to risk his life, to return to Judea, and to wake Lazarus up so that they might believe.
When Christ and the Apostles arrive in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days. While the number four may not bring any kind of negative connotation for us (there are, after all, Four Gospels, Four Marks of the Church, etc.) in the case of Lazarus, four is not a pretty number. If three is the number that brings us to an encounter with God, with four something has gone wrong. We have missed the mark. We have sinned. Saint Augustine, in his commentary on this passage from John, notes that Lazarus, while his illness and death certainly garner our grief and sympathies, was a sinner. In fact, for Augustine the four days of Lazarus’ rotting in the tomb are a symbol of the four-fold sinfulness of mankind: Original Sin, sins against the Natural Law, sins against the Mosaic Law (the Old Covenant), and sins against the Gospel (the New Covenant). St. Augustine’s insistence on Lazarus’ status as a sinner and this four-fold sense of sin will go on to influence several ancient Eucharistic Prefaces that will serve as the basis for the Preface we use for the Fifth Week of the Lent.
While this insistence on Lazarus’ status as a sinner can seem initially off topic, the relevancy of this is further expounded by St. Augustine as he makes another critical observation: how many times Jesus’ love for Lazarus is mentioned.
Someone may say, “How can Lazarus be a symbol of the sinner and yet be so loved by the Lord?” Let the questioner listen to the Lord: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners”! If God did not love sinners, he would not have come to earth.
On hearing of Lazarus’ illness, Jesus said: “This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.” Such a glorification of the Son of God did not really increase his glory, but it was useful to us. He says, then, “This illness is not unto death.” The reason is that even the death of Lazarus was not unto death but happened for the sake of the miracle, the performance of which would lead men to believe in Christ and so avoid real death. Consider here how the Lord indirectly calls himself God, having in mind those who deny that he is God.
The illness and death of Lazarus are not brought about by his or his family’s personal sins any more than the blind man’s blindness (Gospel 4th Sunday) was caused by his or his family’s personal sins. However, Lazarus was a sinner. Lazarus was born with Original Sin. As a consequence of the latter, Lazarus was subject to all the effects of Original Sin, including illness and death, and as a consequence of his personal sins he was especially in need of liberation. Why does Christ allow for Lazarus – and his relatives and friends at that matter – to go through all of this? Is not that same observation by Martha and Mary never far off from our minds: Lord, had you been here, this would not have happened? Why were you not here?
Christ’s response to this question is clear and manifest: I am with you in your suffering. I weep with you. I know your loss for Lazarus was my friend. As Adrien Nocent, OSB, notes: if St. Irenaeus of Lyons is correct and the glory of God is man fully alive, then God cannot be fully glorified by Creation until the Creature has been restored to full life. Yet the destruction of sin and death, the ultimate impediments between humanity and God, cannot be abolished without a sober and serious cure. The Lord who raises Lazarus as the seventh and ultimate sign before his own definitive conquest of Death, does not reveal this sign by distancing himself from us, but rather drawing near and suffering with us. The One who is sinless suffering for the sinner.
Our own struggles these days test our faith in the Lord’s abiding presence and power over Death. The seeming failure of the Lord to answer our prayers in the manner or time we think he should answer them may lead us to the false conclusion that we should slacken our prayers or that our faith is not “an essential business” after all. However, I hope we can draw at least two fruits away from Christ’s mighty sign in this week’s Gospel. First, we are sinners and that whatever hardships we must endure now, in light of the offenses we have given God, are a way in which we can do penance for our sins which ultimately are only remitted by the Pasch of Christ. Second, these same hardships are not to end in ultimate death and annihilation. Christ has conquered Sin. Christ has slain Death. Eternal life is not so much an event or a theory, it is a Person: Jesus Christ. The more we live in him these days the less we have to fear and the more we have to gain.