A Lenten homily.
As I've done occasionally in the past, I'm going to share the text of one of my homilies - in this case, one given earlier this afternoon at Regis College in Toronto for Wednesday in the Fifth Week of Lent. Having embraced the choice provided by the lectionary of replacing the readings of the day with another set of readings provided for optional use this week, I preached on the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45). I offer the homily here in hopes that it may offer consolation and edification to the readers of this blog.
I. "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (Jn 11:21, 32)
At first glance, today's Gospel reading does not present Jesus in the best of lights. Martha and Mary were eager that Jesus should come to visit their ailing brother Lazarus, and his refusal to do so until after Lazarus's death clearly caused them great anguish. Indeed, the text can even be taken to present Lazarus's death in crudely instrumental terms – it seems that Jesus intentionally waited for Lazarus to die in order to provide an occasion for a miracle. Justifying his decision to stay away, Jesus tells his disciples: "For your sake, I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe" (Jn 11:15).
It is probably easy for us to identify with the words with which Martha and Mary both greet Jesus: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (Jn 11:21, 32). These words speak to a kind of spiritual pain which many feel in times of personal loss – when people we love die, especially when their deaths are unexpected, God may seem absent to us. At some point, we may also have cried out in prayer, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" – or if not my brother, my sister, my father, my mother, my child, my spouse. The anguish that Martha and Mary feel is very raw, and it has an effect on Jesus. John tells us that, in seeing how his friends grieved for their brother Lazarus, Jesus "was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved," such that he too began to weep (Jn 11:33,35).
II. "Jesus began to weep" (Jn 11:35)
The emotion displayed by Jesus is highly instructive for us, not simply as people who have experienced suffering but also as people who wish to be better followers of Jesus, and who wish to bring his message to others. As I noted above, Jesus suggests that the death of Lazarus is meant to convey a kind of lesson, revealing that the Son of God is able to overcome the power of death (cf. Jn 11:4, 11, 15). John makes this very clear, but he also us another lesson by reminding us that the God we worship and the Lord we follow is one who suffers with us. Jesus does not stand by impassibly as Martha and Mary grieve for their brother Lazarus; he expresses the depth of his compassion by weeping with them, showing a willingness to enter into their suffering and to make it his own. At times we may feel alone and abandoned, as Martha and Mary did, yet the response of Jesus reminds us that we are never alone, that God remains with us even when we struggle to feel his presence.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to imitate his example as best we can. I suspect that raising others from the dead is not in the cards for any of us - but if you've somehow found a way to pull it off, please let me know. What we can do is seek to imitate Jesus in his compassion. Lent is a good time to take stock of the ways in which we have done this, and the ways in which we have fallen short. How do I enter into the suffering of others, and make it my own? How do I extend the love and the compassion which Jesus models for us to those who need it most? If I struggle to answer these questions, can I find in that struggle an invitation to do more – to become more compassionate, even to weep as Jesus does in the company of his friends Martha and Mary?
III. "But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him" (Jn 11:22)
As I said earlier, I think we can easily identify with the reproach that Martha and Mary offer to Jesus – "if you had been here, my brother would not have died" – but I wonder if we can also identify with them on another level. Of the two sisters, Martha is traditionally seen as the embodiment of the active life, while Mary is regarded as a classic contemplative. In Luke's Gospel, Martha is the one who busies herself with the task of preparing to welcome Jesus, while Mary is content to sit at Jesus' feet listening to his words (Lk 10:38-42). We don't find that story in John's Gospel, but John does tell us that Mary of Bethany was "the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair" (Jn 11:2). To my mind, this detail suggests an essential harmony between what Luke and John say about the two sisters: the act of anointing that John describes is an act of adoration, an act that seems more fitting for the contemplative who sits at Jesus' feet than it does for the person who busies herself with the practical demands of housekeeping.
Given the difference in temperament or personality between Martha and Mary, I find it very striking that Martha, the one who was "busy with many things" (Lk 10:41), is also the one who follows her reproach of Jesus with a profession of faith: "But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him" (Jn 11:22). Mary, who had chosen "the better part" of contemplation, makes no such statement; she only says again: "If you had been here, my brother would not have died."
In the Ignatian tradition, we seek to bring action and contemplation into harmony – to show that the life of Martha is not in tension with that of Mary. The synthesis of the two is very important, but for now I'd simply like to end by noting that Martha makes her profession of faith in a moment of great personal anguish – she professes her faith that Christ can do all things, even raising the dead, at precisely the moment when her faith has been put to the test, when she has experienced the disappointment of feeling the Lord’s absence at the time when she most desired his presence. As we continue our Lenten journey, let us pray that we can make Martha’s faith our own – that even at times of great personal struggle, we can also courageously profess the faith that has determined the course of our lives.
Prayers for all readers who are presently engaged in the spiritual combat of Lent. AMDG.