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Back in seminary, I was very blessed along with my classmates to go to the Holy Land to study for a few weeks. I remember one time going on a tour with them in Jerusalem, and part of the tour involved going through an ancient tunnel – carved out of the ground about 2500 years or so ago near the area where the ancient Jewish Temple stood. I am not a big fan of tunnels or otherwise enclosed spaces, and had I realized what this tunnel was like, I don’t think I would have agreed to enter it. For one thing, it was very long – probably half-a-mile, and it took about 15 minutes to walk through. For another thing, at points it got low and narrow: at times I had to duck my head down because the ceiling was so low and at other times we had to squeeze sideways through it because it was so narrow. And with a bunch of guys in front of me and a bunch behind me, at times we moved way too slowly for my comfort, or were not moving at all. At one point when we weren’t moving fast enough and I felt trapped, panic started to well up in me and I yelled at the guys in front of me: “Keep moving! I’m not kidding!” I wasn’t really in any danger, but my reason was overpowered by my fear.
Fear is a very powerful emotion and it can really take over and make us think and do irrational things. There are lots of things that people are afraid of. At this point in time, we are suddenly faced with a number of them which I don’t need to list as everyone is already no doubt aware of them. But the big one, the number one fear of most people if not everyone has to be death. We get uncomfortable when we hear this word; it’s almost like no one really wants to acknowledge it. “Don’t talk about that; you’re scaring the children!” But if our lives were a room, then death would be the elephant in it. (Although I don’t really get that expression: if there’s an elephant in the room, why does everyone want to ignore it?) Death is a reality for every single one of us, and we are all heading towards it; some maybe sooner, some maybe later, but eventually we will all have a rendezvous with it.
Perhaps you are wondering: why are you talking about this Father; I am feeling pretty stressed out right now and need to hear some words of comfort. Well the words of comfort are coming in a minute. But death is a big reality in our lives and it’s foolish to ignore it and live like it doesn’t exist. I’m not saying we should all fixate on it all the time and just sit around waiting for it to come. But we do need to live our lives in such a way that we are all ready for it whenever it should come.
The main reason I’m talking about it right now though is not because of the scary coronavirus, but because death is central to our readings today. Well actually death is not central to them; it’s more incidental to them. Because what is really central to our readings is not death but rather God’s triumph over it. In our first reading from the prophet Ezekiel, God makes this promise: “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them…then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and have you rise from them! I will put my spirit in you that you may live! I have promised, and I will do it,” says the Lord. Can you hear the love that God has for us in these words?
And in our Gospel reading, a very long reading – an entire chapter from the Gospel of John – we hear the familiar account of how Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. We are not told what Lazarus has died from, but we do know that he has been in the tomb for four days. He is definitely dead. And yet Jesus shows that he has power even over death. He calls Lazarus forth from the tomb, and sure enough he comes walking out, wrapped in his burial cloths. Death is always so definitive. It is the definitive end of life on this earth. Once someone dies, that’s it; there’s no coming back. Except for Jesus, for whom even death has no power. At his word, Lazarus returns from death to life.
Lazarus’s death, followed by the miracle of being brought back to life, is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Although there is of course a great difference: Lazarus was raised from the dead to return to this earthly life, but later died again to this earthly life. When Jesus rose from the dead, he entered into eternal life in which suffering and death no longer have any power over him and he is no longer subject to the physical laws of this life. But Jesus’ resurrection gives us the hope that we too will be raised from the dead, not in the sense that Lazarus was in our reading today, but in the way that Jesus himself rose from the dead, to a new, perfect, eternal life.
When Jesus nears Bethany where Lazarus and Martha and Mary live, Martha comes out to meet him. Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise, and then tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Then he asks her, “Do you believe this?” Imagine that Jesus is asking you that same question: do we believe that Jesus will raise us from the dead? Do we believe that He has the power to do it? I’m not asking whether we understand how that works. Nor am I asking if we know what eternal life will be like. Nobody does; we can only speculate about those things. Rather, do we assent to this: that Jesus Christ has the power and the desire to raise us from the dead, so that the suffering and death of this life will never have power over us again.
If you don’t believe this right now but want to, or feel like you have just a little shred of belief, then ask the Lord to increase your faith. But if we do believe in this, how does that change how we see death. And not just death, but even how we see life. If we truly believe that Jesus has the power to raise us from the dead, then that great big fear of death starts to loosen its hold over us. It becomes something that we no longer have to dread, but rather something that we prepare ourselves for, because it means that we will be coming face to face with the Lord.
In this time of uncertainty and anxiety of so many things, let us take comfort in the promises that Jesus has made us, and in the unchanging love God has for us.