April 6, 2014
In John’s gospel, Jesus is first and foremost the one who gives life. In fact, the whole purpose of the gospel is “that believing you may have life in his name” (20:31). From this perspective, the raising of Lazarus from the grave is merely a preview of the definitive victory of life in the resurrection of Jesus.
In human experience, death has always been the dragon that eats up our hopes and spoils our plans and casts a shadow over even the brightest days. But Jesus came to slay that dragon, and he will do this by means of a power that at first sight seems hopelessly inadequate. It is the power of loving. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (11:5). This means that God loves us also.
This divine power is now made available in our world through the presence of Jesus. In response to Martha’s grief, he announces that he is “the resurrection and the life.” Such and absolute statement means that his loving has taken him beyond the reach of death. Death is no longer an end but merely an episode on the journey of life.
When Jesus sees how his friends are burdened by grief, he himself gives way to tears and, deeply moved, goes forward to challenge the awesome power of death. When Lazarus comes out of the tomb still bound with his burial wrappings, Jesus says, “Untie him and let him go.” This command is an echo of the divine command of God to the Pharaoh to “let my people go” (Exodus 5:1) and, long before that, to the power of darkness to “let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). God has always stood for freedom from bondage and darkness. And we can escape the dark shadow of the dragon if we choose to participate in the love that liberates.
When we feel the cold hand of death upon us, whether it be through the loss of a loved one or in the experience of our own mortality, we feel so helpless that we are often reduced to an anguished, “Why?” or “Why me?” At such times, we can identify easily with Martha when she said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Of course, Jesus is here all the while. It is just that he is more concerned with a life that is so much more important that this fragile existence that we call life. When Jesus asks us whether we believe in his presence and power, we will be able hopefully to answer with a firm “Yes.”
Jesus responded to the anguish of Martha by a powerful theological affirmation: “I am the resurrection and the life.” But we learn a few verses later that Jesus moved toward the raising of Lazarus only when he noted the tears of Mary. Her accepted human vulnerability and her total trust in Him are models that assure victory for us too over all the forms of death and darkness.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.