March 20, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Reflection on the raising of Lazarus back to life

John F. FinkOne of the Gospel options for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is St. John’s account of the raising of Lazarus back to life after he was dead for four days.

Lazarus lived with his sisters Martha and Mary in Bethany, a town that was, and is, at the top of the Mount of Olives. It’s only two miles from Jerusalem, but that included a walk up the Mount of Olives, about 300 feet higher than Jerusalem, when he was walking there.

The Gospels don’t tell us how Jesus met the three siblings, but we know that they were good friends. That’s why the sisters sent word to Jesus that “the one you love is ill” (Jn 11:3), and why Martha upbraided Jesus for not coming immediately when he got the word.

But Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. He had been staying across the Jordan River in the province of Perea after some of the Jews tried to stone him after he claimed that “the Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30). He knew that returning to Jerusalem would lead to his death, but his death was his Father’s plan for the redemption of the world, and Jesus wasn’t going to run away from his fate.

His Apostles, too, knew that returning to Judea was dangerous. When Jesus announced that they were going back, they said, “The Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” (Jn 11:8).

Jesus also still felt it necessary to perform a spectacular miracle so his followers would believe in him. He told his Apostles that he was glad that he wasn’t with Lazarus before his death “that you may believe” (Jn 11: 15). And in his prayer before he called Lazarus to come out of the tomb, Jesus thanked his Father for allowing him to perform this miracle so that the crowd “may believe that you sent me” (Jn 11:42).

Jesus also displayed emotion: “And Jesus wept” (Jn 11:35). He wept out of sympathy for Martha and Mary, empathizing with their grief even though he knew that he was about to wipe away their tears.

Then, of course, he performed his amazing miracle for the effect it would have on both his friends and his enemies.

For us, perhaps the most important words in this Gospel are those of Jesus to Martha: “Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (Jn 11:25-26). Jesus promised eternal life to those who believe in him.

Today, Bethany is in the West Bank town of al-Eizariya (City of Lazarus). The tomb of Lazarus, sacred to both Christians and Muslims, is beneath a mosque, but there’s a separate entrance for Christians and very uneven steps leading down to the tomb.

Also in Bethany, about 25 yards from the tomb, is the Roman Catholic Church of St. Lazarus, built by the Franciscans from 1952 to 1955. (The first church on this site was built in the fourth century.) It has beautiful mosaics depicting the time Jesus spent with the three siblings. †

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