The Raising of Lazarus, Catacomb of Via Latina AD 350-400, Rome, Italy.

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Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” And when he had said this, He cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” John 11:41-44.

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Jesus’ greatest miracle was clearly his own resurrection, the conquest of the ultimate enemy, death itself. But today’s gospel recounts the greatest miracle during his ministry on earth, coming very close to his own passion and death, namely raising his friend Lazarus from death. The very early fresco above, found in a Roman catacomb, shows that moment of anticipation with everyone no doubt wondering what would happen. And Lazarus did indeed emerge, restored to life. Note that Jesus is depicted as a young Roman man, beardless and wearing a toga, as by that time Christians did not know how a Jewish man 300-400 years earlier would have looked. (Perhaps we can thank the Shroud of Turin for the eventual change to something more authentic, as a bearded Jesus would soon emerge to become the standard portrayal of the Lord once the Shroud seemingly appeared in Constantinople around that time). But clearly this miracle, the culmination of his ministry, was not well received by the authorities who would have noted this unparalleled event. Rather than taking this as a clear, obvious, glaring sign of the arrival of the Messiah in their midst, instead they plotted his downfall and destruction. Sometimes, it seems, the presence of pure goodness inspires an equal and opposite evil; the ultimate battle between good and evil  was about to begin. Jesus himself had predicted this several times to his devoted but clueless followers. On the other hand, had Jesus advocated taking up the sword against the pagan Roman forces occupying the Holy Land, ah, that would have been received very differently…

The first reading today shows the prophet Ezekiel declaring to the Hebrews in exile in Babylon who had given up hope, that all would be renewed. They would be allowed to return to their homeland guided by the Spirit of God within them to a new life. Jesus today indicated a new life awaiting us all, but not in this life, but the one to follow, supported by the unparalleled miracle of Lazarus which strengthened his authority to make such a promise. If he could raise people from the dead, can’t we trust him when he says we can enjoy everlasting life and happiness once we have cleared this vale of tears? This is underlined by the second reading today; that very same Spirit which raised Jesus from the clutches of death is promised for each of us. In that way, only much more profoundly, we too will be called from death by the Lord and welcomed back to life but not into this world with all its problems and challenges, but to a world of eternal peace and happiness, to heaven itself.

The Resurrection of Lazarus, di Paulo 1426, The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday and marks the beginning of Holy Week, commemorating the final days of the Savior physically on earth with us. It is no coincidence that the miracle of Lazarus in John’s gospel (which, by the way, John always called “signs” rather than miracles) came as the last and ultimate “sign” in his gospel. It is the greatest example of the exercise of his divine power as God’s Son, and should have been taken as the clearest proof of the presence of the Messiah as sent by God to this earth. But this was a peaceful Messiah, not a rabble-rousing military maniac for whom, unhappily, that whole society awaited. Jesus was the exact opposite, something which would bring disaster upon him. So raising someone from death to life, though impressive, was not what that society was aching for. The triumphant entry into the nearby city of Jerusalem, next Sunday’s opening gospel, clearly indicated that. The bitter and profound disappointment on discovering Jesus was just about the exact opposite of what they were expecting, sealed his fate. They were expecting slaughter, death to the Romans and restoration of the kingdom of David. What they got was a life-giving, peace-loving, God-fearing angelic messenger of loving forgiveness and acceptance. That remains the model of the perfect Christian from that day to this.

The Resurrection of Lazarus, Garcia Vega 2013.

Now, I have a Lenten exercise where I am asking you to participate. I have received very few reactions to this webpage over the last few years, so I am in the dark as to how it is received. Please let me know what you appreciate about this webpage and what annoys you about it. Are there any recommendations you could make? Please send your responses (and I DO ask you to respond) to:

Many thanks.

Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.