On this fifth Sunday of Lent, we have some amazing readings to ponder. You can find the full text of these readings on the USCCB website, or look up the following in your own Bible:
- Ezekiel 37:12-14
- Romans 8:8-11
- John 11:1-45
I’ll give you a hint on where I’m headed with this reflection: it all comes down to hope.
We begin in the Old Testament in the book of the prophet Ezekiel. If you’ve paid attention to Old Testament history, you’d know that Israel doesn’t always have an easy time of things. They are regularly at war, repeatedly conquered, oftentimes suffering, and as a result find themselves wondering why the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God who had worked such wonders throughout their history – was now nowhere to be found. It is in one of these moments that Ezekiel is sent to speak to them, and Ezekiel 37 provides one of the most memorable images in all of scripture. It begins with a vision of a valley of dry (human) bones – picture the elephant graveyard from the Lion King – a place of despair and lifelessness. To these bones Ezekiel begins to preach the Word of God, and an incredible transformation begins takes place. While it may seem like a scene out of a zombie apocalypse, these bones are miraculously brought back to life… and this scene brings with it a promise:
I will put my spirit in you that you may come to life, and I will settle you in your land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD. I have spoken; I will do it. -Ezekiel 12:14
The second reading from St. Paul comes from the same chapter as we hear two much more memorable passages: that all things work for good for those who love God (Romans 8:28) and that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). In the passage we hear this week, Paul reminds us that although our bodies are “dead because of sin” (Romans 8:10), the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you (Romans 8:11). He echoes what Ezekiel had said centuries earlier: that the corruption our bodies experience due to sin can be restored by the power of God.
All this sets the stage for the Gospel. When Jesus’ friend Lazarus becomes ill, his family does the obvious: they send for Jesus who has spent his time teaching and healing people across their country. It would stand to reason that if Jesus is willing to heal strangers of what ails them, he should want to help a friend as well. Here, Jesus does something unexpected: upon learning of Lazarus’ illness, he takes his sweet time making his way to Bethany. In the interim, Lazarus dies. This story ends in another scene that looks like the zombie apocalypse. Jesus has them roll the stone from Lazarus’ grave, he calls for the dead man to come out… and Lazarus obliges, still wrapped up in burial cloths.
What makes this reading particularly amazing is the way in which Jesus meets up with Lazarus’ sisters, Mary & Martha, between the time Lazarus has died and Jesus raises him from the dead. They’re likely wondering why the miracle worker was willing/able to help so many others, but not them. It’s here that we find the shortest verse from the Bible (John 11:35): Jesus wept. This is a fascinating moment, because when Jesus comes face to face with the two sisters’ grief, He doesn’t offer them a parable or a beatitude. He doesn’t even tell them what He’s about to do (raise their brother and take away the reason for their sorrow.) No, instead, in Mary and Martha’s darkest and most difficult moment, Jesus stops and weeps right alongside them.
This brings light to our sense of Christian hope, as exemplified by the cross. You can see crosses typically displayed in one of two ways: an empty cross or with an image of the dead body of Jesus still hanging on it (we call this a crucifix).
The empty Cross reminds us of Ezekiel & Paul’s words in our first and second reading this week: the idea that the suffering and pain of this life will someday come to an end. Jesus rose from the dead and conquered death – and similarly, there will be a day when every tear will be wiped away, and that death will be no more (see Revelation 21:4). This is an important aspect of hope – that somewhere on the other side of our suffering, either in this life or the next, relief is coming.
A crucifix is also important, because we need to remember that we never suffer alone. When we feel like we’ve been nailed to the cross, we need to know that He is hanging there right alongside us… and that in the same manner as when He encountered Mary and Martha in the Gospel: when we weep, Jesus weeps as well.
With only two weeks to go until Easter Sunday, the Church presents us with a message of hope – hope for the future, and hope that we are never alone. Whether we are feeling close to God, or lost in the ways that Mary, Martha, and the Israelites did in this week’s readings, may we come to understand what it truly means to have hope… that the God who has worked miracles so often throughout history – for His friends and for those we would call strangers – has not abandoned us.