Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
5th Sunday of Lent - Year A
March 9, 2008

Today, 5th Sunday of Lent, we are seemingly confronted with courage gone flat, hopes dashed, and dreams for a threesome family’s future togetherness gone forever, lost to the inevitability of physical death. The opening scene of our running movie feature today is one of death and decay – with no less than a graveyard as centerpiece, and with Ezekiel’s feeble-sounding oracles trying to rise above a very real and existential condition of humanity’s apparent common destiny of desolation.

An unmistakable tinge of desolation is what we hear in Martha’s plaintive, faintly mocking and blaming tone, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We see traces of the complaint we heard Israelites of old in the desert wilderness tell Moses three Sundays back, “Is the Lord in our midst or not?”

The world is threatened with death all over. Prognostications of doom and destruction surround us from all sides – from ecological, man-made disasters to wayward asteroids possibly hitting too close to home at some not-too-distant time in future. In these recent years, we saw more than just buildings collapsing, courtesy of so much anger and hatred, spurred on as much by politics as by religious fanaticism. We stand witness almost to the day to bombs, cars, and trucks exploding tearing apart not only otherwise close-knit and young families and their future, but also the brightest hopes and dreams for a peaceful world of entire generations and civilizations all over the shrinking planet.

We are a people still threatened by death. We are a family of nations still bothered by the inevitable – the ineluctable consequence of sin, which is death, that has plagued humanity ever since Adam and Eve first ran counter to God’s loving plan.

Today, as we go deeper and farther into our Lenten journey, we would like to face this threat squarely in the face, and see this powerful threat of death and destruction go through the same process of reversals that we have had the opportunity of reflecting on from last Christmas onwards, all the way up to last week’s reflection.

For what is the Christian good news essentially but a story of reversals? In this unfolding story of salvation, we saw an Adam whose one transgression brought us perdition. But we were also introduced to a new Adam, that one man through whom restoration via reconciliation took place. We saw a woman named Eva, partner to Adam and partner to sin, supplanted by a new Eve, now worthy of being hailed with profuse Aves because, by her cooperation with God’s plan, she made it possible for us to rise from the ashes like the Phoenix, rise from darkness and misery, and assume our rightful places as sharers in the glorious liberty of the children of God. We hear today another important reversal in the story of a long dead and buried Lazarus, being coaxed back to life by the one who showed humanity the ultimate reversal and supreme paradox of life through death. We saw incipient reversals in the story of God becoming man, in the ongoing story of this divine-human intimacy made possible precisely because Christ the new Adam, “though divine, did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave.”

Our Christian good news that comes to us who are now deeply immersed in this culture of death, in this world threatened by death and decay, revolves around this faith-phenomenon of reversals and contrasts. St. Paul capitalizes on this concept of contrasts, by juxtaposing two types of Christian believers – those who live in the flesh, and those who live by the Spirit. Jesus further affirms and deepens on this contrast by alluding to two types of people – those who walk during the day and those who walk during the night. In either case, it is those who have that “inner light” that do not stumble in the dark.

I would like to suggest that in the context of all the death and decay in our midst today, we would do well to allow ourselves to be uplifted by what today’s liturgy reminds us of, among other things. Ever so subtly and gently, we are being led to make a choice. We are asked to choose between a “life in the flesh,” or a “life in the spirit,” on the one hand, and between having or not having that “inner light” that will help us not to stumble in the dark, on the other.

There is no mistaking the choice of Ezekiel. He has obviously made God’s choice his own. And God’s choice comes with a resolute and decisive declaration: “I have promised, and I will do it.” What sort of promise is this all about? Read between the lines … read Ezekiel’s lips … read God’s solicitous love in every promise. It all boils down to bringing new life out of death. “I will open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people!” Who else but one who has chosen to possess and nourish that “inner light” like Paul, who could confidently declare, “the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.”

Who else but one who doggedly refuses to be threatened by death, who refuses to allow himself to cower in fear of death and decay, can say along with Thomas called Didymus, “let us also go to die with him?” Who else but those, who like Martha and Mary, who both face death squarely in the face, and refuse to be threatened by the finality of physical death, can utter words that glow with that “inner light” of faith in the Lord: “But even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”

It is people who have chosen that inner light of faith that thrive where everything around them smacks of death. It is people who choose to look pain, suffering, and death in the eye, and who willingly join the Master in the journey to Calvary, who ‘also go to die with him,” who see the flip side of the death coin, and see life. It is people who have seen pain and suffering first hand, or who have suffered vicariously and empathically, who can be sensitive to the suffering of the earth, and who, therefore can tread on mother earth and her riches lightly and responsibly. It is people who have learned, like Christ, to die to themselves, who can appreciate the value of innocent lives, and who can therefore, afford to be compassionate to fellow human beings who have as much right to live as they have, regardless of their age, sex, health status, productivity, or usefulness in society. It is those who feel threatened by others’ lives (the lives of the innocent unborn, the sick, the aged, and those whom they consider as “burdens” to society), who are also thereby threatened by the idea of death and decay. In their furious attempts at denying death, they end up feverishly fostering the opposite of the evangelical value of life in all its fullness. Unwilling to acknowledge death, they become unable to face their own death-dealing actions and patterns of behavior. Reluctant to be guided by that “inner light” that keeps them from “stumbling in the dark,” they end up discouraged by all the death and decay that stalk the land and threaten people’s peace of mind and serenity of heart.

The inner light that Martha and Mary held onto, the Israelites’ holding fast to the Lord’s promises and resolute declarations, ultimately did not undo, nor prevent, the ineluctable pain of separation, and the pain of losing people in death, including that of Martha’s and Mary’s brother Lazarus. But it was that inner light that brought them perspective. It was that inner light of faith that helped them stand, instead of stumble in moments of darkness. It was that inner light of faith that led them to see the meaning behind the ambivalence, the paradox, the mystery of “God” who “gives life while killing,” as one writer puts it.

For people who have this inner light of faith, it is not anymore death that threatens us. “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.” No, it is the other way around. Karl Barth, in his characteristic depth of perception says this much. Echoing St. Paul, who wrote, “Death, where is thy sting? Where is thy victory,?” he declares that it is rather death that is “threatened by Resurrection.”

I quote more:

“Nothing, absolutely nothing, can one do who is fated to this life of sin and death, with its thousandfold festering needs; nothing can one do to amend it; nothing fills up this vacuum. Admit it; there is no way out! Unless it is the possibility of a miracle happening – no, not a miracle, but the miracle, the miracle of God – God’s incomprehensible, saving intervention and mercy, the all-inclusive renewal that leads from death to life that comes from him, God’s life-word, resurrection from the dead! Resurrection – not progress, not evolution, not enlightenment, but a call from heaven to us: ‘Rise up! You are dead, but I will give you life.’”

Let us then pray, as we do, at this Mass, “for the courage to embrace the world in the name of Christ.” (Alternative Opening Prayer Introduction). This world of death and decay is now, happily, “threatened by Resurrection.”