March 26, 2023
Fifth Sunday of Lent
“Do you believe this?” (John 11:26) These words of Jesus echo down the ages from the heart of today’s Gospel. They are addressed to Martha in the story, but the whole structure of John’s Gospel is designed to put the reader on trial. Do you believe? And what, exactly, do you believe in?
They are fitting questions for this Fifth Sunday of Lent, on which we celebrate the last of the three Scrutinies through which our candidates undergoing the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, together with the whole community, seek “to uncover, then heal all that is weak, defective, or sinful” in our lives and to “strengthen all that is upright, strong, and good.” (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, #141) What this week’s Gospel has power to uncover, heal and strengthen in us is the virtue of hope — or our lack thereof — upon which it performs major surgery.
Martha and Mary, as we know, sent word for Jesus to come because their brother Lazarus was ill. “Now,” the Gospel continues, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.” (John 11:5-6) That line always reminds me of customer service operators who profess their deep care for the issue you are having and then proceed to put you back on hold — the difference being that they don’t typically do so in order to reveal the glory of God.
In Jesus’ delay, Lazarus dies, and we are led to observe the two reactions this provokes in Martha and Mary — the yin and the yang. The busy Martha here has her time to shine, as she rushes out to meet Jesus upon his arrival in Bethany, while Mary the homebody sits at home, wrapped in grief. Their words to Jesus are remarkably similar, thus inviting their comparison and highlighting their difference.
Martha calls out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” (John 11:21) Later, Mary will say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and then returns to her weeping. (John 11:32-33)
The difference is chilling, if you let them hang in the air. Both are heartfelt and human reactions. Jesus himself will weep as he comes upon his deceased friend Lazarus. (John 11:35) But Mary’s grief is void of hope in Christ, while Martha’s remains open in the face of their tragedy, not only to what the Lord could have done and didn’t but to what the Lord can do “even now.”
Mary’s hopelessness causes Jesus to become “perturbed and deeply troubled.” (John 11:33) It is a visceral reaction — literally, “he snorted in spirit and was agitated within himself” in the Greek — brought on, perhaps, by the pairing of the presence of death, which Paul describes as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Corinthians 15:26), and the hopelessness it evokes in the lambs whom Jesus loves.
And so, like the Good Shepherd he just proclaimed himself to be in the previous chapter, Jesus “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3) — Lazarus literally, and the whole flock more deeply. They roll the stone away, and the hopeful Martha nonetheless still worries about the stench. The categories of her hope are still too tightly bound for her to walk in the fullness of faith. But Jesus utters immediately a prayer of thanks. Why? Because as the stone is rolled away, there is no smell. He knows that his prayer to the Father has been answered, and so he calls forth his rescued lamb by name: “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43)
In calling Lazarus out, he calls us out — out of our too-meager hope in him, who is the resurrection and the life — he who is master even over death itself, and so sets us free to live a life unbound from doubt and grief and despair, and instead to walk freely as sons and daughters of the living God. “Untie him and let him go,” Jesus says of Lazarus, and says of you today.
St. Theresa of Avila prays beautifully from this stance of hope that so powerfully transforms the Christian life. It is a fitting prayer of preparation for our coming regimen of Holy Week:
“Hope, O my soul, hope. You know neither the day nor the hour. Watch carefully, for everything passes quickly, even though your impatience makes doubtful what is certain, and turns a very short time into a long one. Dream that the more you struggle, the more you prove the love that you bear your God, and the more you will rejoice one day with your beloved, in a happiness and rapture that can never end.” (Excl. 15:3; CCC 1821)