Fifth Sunday in Lent

Photo by Crina Parasca on Unsplash

Ezekiel 37:12-14
John 11:1-45

The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with bands of stuff and a cloth round his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, let him go free.’

I come to today’s Gospel with several strands which have resisted being woven together. This is undoubtedly a message for me. I offer you each strand.

This week we find ourselves standing with Mary and Martha at the tomb of Lazarus. In their despair and loss they have called upon the help of their friend, Jesus. When Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, Martha says to him;

‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died, but I know that, even now, whatever you ask of God, he will grant you.’ 

I hear in Martha’s words both sorrow and hope. The weaving together of real anguish and hope is something which runs throughout salvation history. One of the things which shaped the people of Israel was learning to deal with disappointment and desolation.

I am put in mind of one of my favourite parts of the Triduum liturgy where on Holy Saturday, at Office of Readings, we listen to this text from Lamentations:

The favours of the Lord are not all past,
nor his kindnesses exhausted;
every morning they are renewed;
great is his faithfulness.’

‘My portion is the Lord says’ my soul,
‘and so I will hope in him.’
The Lord is good to those who trust him,
to the soul that searches for him.
It is good to wait in silence
for the Lord to save.

A cantor sings the descant line and the melody is played on a tenor recorder. It is a hauntingly beautiful combination. Every word is poignant. Sometimes all that is left to us is to wait in silence for the Lord to save.

If we imagine ourselves journeying with the catechumens in the Early Church, the time of our baptism is drawing very near. In baptism we will join Christ in the tomb. When we emerge from the waters our new spirit-filled life will begin. Lazarus’ story is pointing us to Christ.

Hearing this story at this point in Lent serves most obviously to foreshadow Christ’s death and resurrection. It also offers us in Martha and Mary two models for our faith journey. Their friendship with Jesus is something which has always exercised my imagination. They must have seen him at his best and at his worst. It strikes me that they are both real with him.

And now to Lazarus- unlike his sisters, he doesn’t speak at all John’s Gospel. We are left to listen to the silences. People speculate as to why his two sisters lived at home with him. Did he need their care in a particular way? Why was it that Jesus gave him such special attention?

Do we ever consider what it was like for Lazarus to come back to life? His sisters may have wanted this, but did he? I am haunted by the last line of Elizabeth Jennings’ poem:

A View from Lazarus

See he is coming from the tomb. His eyes
Need shelter from the light. We crowd and press
Towards him, some say nothing. One or two
Whisper. Others look afraid but stare,
Most turn their eyes away. Such a strange
Light is coming from behind the man   
Brought back from death and coughing in the breeze.  
One by one his senses set to work
To ease this man to us. A look of loss
Shows on his features but he does not speak.
Some begin to question him about
What dying felt like and how he did break
Back to us. He can relive our doubt,

But he seems dumb and we don’t want to make 
His rising difficult although we long
To look back at the glimmering kingdom he
Has left, if Paradise is there
But is not for the snatching. Lazarus now
Opens his eyes and it’s at us he stares
As if we all were strangers. Then it’s odd,
But we feel we should stop talking. Lazarus is,
Yes no doubt of it, now shedding tears,
And whispering quietly, God, O no, dear God.

Lazarus needs the help of those around him to unbind him. His bound hands cannot do the unbinding. Who comes forward first? Does Jesus help? Do they start with his hands or his face first?

Are there things in your own life that need unbinding? Who can help you?