by Jean-Pierre Ruiz
Call me old-fashioned, but when I sit down to write something important, I don’t turn on the computer. First, I write it out with pen on paper. Call me doubly old-fashioned, because I use a fountain pen to do it, not the cheap fountain pens we were taught to use in third grade — the ones that left blue stains on our uniform shirt pockets — but the kind that fills from an ink bottle.
With the suspension of the celebration of public Masses in our own diocese and in so many other places because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is one of those times, a time for serious writing, and for even more serious praying. This is a time when we especially need the kind of nourishment we are offered by God’s Word in the Scriptures. By a timely gift of divine providence, the readings appointed for this Fifth Sunday of Lent converge to provide welcome sustenance for our worried and weary souls.
The psalmist sings, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to my voice in supplication!”
No polite concealment of the singer’s visceral anguish in this lament, no putting up a brave face! As the prayer continues, the psalmist places everything in God’s hands to confess, “I trust in the Lord; my soul trusts in his word.” With this trust comes faith, with the singer declaring: “For with the Lord is kindness and with him is plenteous redemption.”
A look through the pages of history reminds us that ours is not the first time that people of faith have found themselves facing trouble. The prophet Ezekiel was commissioned by God to minister among his fellow Judean exiles, living far from home “by the rivers of Babylon,” where — as we read in Psalm 137 — they sat weeping. They were led there into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies while Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple were reduced to ruins.
Sunday’s first reading, the end of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, is the divine response to the people’s cry, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off!” The prophet is ordered to declare: “Thus says the Lord God: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel…I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord.” God does not let their cry go unheard, nor will our prayers go unattended!
That abiding promise of restoration and renewal echoes throughout Scripture, making its way into the pages of John’s Gospel as we read of the raising of Lazarus. When Jesus receives word from his friends Mary and Martha, “Master, the one you love is ill,” he offers reassurance: “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
To the bewilderment of his disciples, Jesus doesn’t rush to Lazarus’s side, but stays put for two more days. By the time Jesus reaches Bethany, Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. He presses on, revealing to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” “Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she says!
When Mary joins her sister, she repeats Martha’s pained words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” To this the Word-made-flesh does not respond with any words at all, but from the depths of his heart: “When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled.”
Jesus, perturbed and deeply troubled! Jesus cared, and Jesus cares. Because Jesus the light of the world is also the resurrection and the life, when they reach the tomb and Martha warns, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days,” Jesus assures her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So she does, when her brother hears the voice of Jesus and emerges from the tomb alive!
Just as the prophet Ezekiel proclaimed in God’s name to the exiles in Babylon, “I will put my spirit in you that you may live,” and just as Martha told Jesus, “I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,” so too did the apostle Paul testify to God’s abiding faithfulness: “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.”
Let us find hope in the words of Ezekiel and Paul and in the faith of Martha and Mary, knowing that we are sustained by the Spirit of our ever-faithful God. In these difficult times, may we find strength and reassurance by praying with the psalmist, “With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.”
Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent
Ezekiel 37: 12-14
Psalm 130: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
Romans 8: 8-11
John 11: 1-45 or
John 11: 3-7, 17, 33b-45
Father Ruiz is a professor of theology at St. John’s University, Jamaica.