By Father John P. Cush
The Gospel today presented to us from the Evangelist John is one which I became very familiar with as a newly ordained priest for two reasons. The first was that, immediately after ordination, I returned to Rome to complete my licentiate degree in fundamental theology. The topic of my thesis was how to establish criteria for determining the historicity of Gospel passages. The passage that I had chosen was today’s Gospel: the story of the raising of Lazarus. (Everybody here should yawn together!) After almost a year of reading about this passage and writing my thesis, as much as I had loved the story, I simply could not look at it any longer with fresh eyes.
The second reason was my first parish assignment as a priest. My view of this Gospel changed when I returned to the diocese and became a parochial vicar at St. Helen’s in Howard Beach. The parish had a very busy pastoral and liturgical life, which included many funerals. After celebrating many funeral Masses, where this Gospel is often chosen to be read, I was finally able to really perceive the utter beauty of this Gospel.
Hellenic Style, Philosophy
Perhaps we’re familiar with this particular Gospel, but let’s look at it within context. This is the most sophisticated of all the Gospels: linguistically, philosophically and theologically. It is set up completely, totally different than all of the other Gospels.
Matthew, Mark and Luke are what we call Synoptic Gospels. The word “synoptic” is Greek, meaning “to look together,” and indeed, that is the case. These first three Gospels more or less follow a similar structure. John’s Gospel is an entirely different creature! This last of the Gospels follows an entirely different structure. What a difference – is it not – from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, which is blunt and direct. Why is this one so different? Not only was it, like all of the others, coming from a different time period (Christians had an additional 30-35 years to reflect on this Gospel, as compared to Mark’s), and not only was it written for a different audience than the others, but it also reflects one of the first times that our Church uses the language and style of a different culture. It is Hellenic, or Greek, in its style and in the philosophy expressed.
Recognizing the Signs
The Gospel is traditionally broken into two parts: chapter 1-11 is called the Book of Signs. Chapter 12-22 is called the Book of Glory. I’d like to focus on the Book of Signs. You see, in John’s Gospel, we have a particular phrase for what are called “miracles” in the other Gospels. In John, we call them “signs.”
Each sign, each act that Jesus performs in this first part of John’s Gospel, gets bigger and bigger, each one pointing to the reality that is right in front of the people of Jesus’ day: namely, that this Man is the Messiah. From the wedding feast at Cana, to the various healings performed by the Lord, to the crucial moment that is the Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of this Gospel, where Jesus loses many followers, those who simply could not accept the teaching and message He came to bring, it all culminates in this Gospel’s 11th chapter.
Jesus is at his low point, at the nadir of his popularity when we encounter Him here. He’s away from the main stage, away from Jerusalem. He received word that one of his closest friends, Lazarus, is dead. Jesus waits three days, foreshadowing the time He will spend in the tomb, before going to see Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary. Then we see Jesus at His most human, (recall the shortest verse in all of Scripture: “Jesus wept.”). Jesus is sad, crying with and for Martha, Mary and His deceased friend, Lazarus. He is truly sorrowful, grieving in His human nature, but He does not despair.
We see the Lord Jesus at His most human in this Gospel, but then, suddenly we see Him at His most Divine. By His own power as divine, He raises the long dead, stinking, rotting Lazarus (remember the verse in the King James Version: “He stinketh.”) from the dead. This was not just resuscitation; this was a resurrection. And this is the greatest sign of who Jesus is, the most undeniable proof of His Divine Sonship until He rises from the dead at Easter. What’s the difference between the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus? The Lord is raised to eternal life; Lazarus is raised to earthly life. Lazarus will die once more on earth, but the Lord Jesus will never die.
Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and we read that Lazarus comes out, bound hand and foot. The Lord says these simple words: “Untie him, and let him go free.” The same Jesus, who is fully human and fully divine is calling to us, beckoning us to let Him untie us and to let us go free.
Live in Freedom
What’s tying us up and refusing to let us go free? I’d venture to guess it is sin. Jesus wants us to be free from sin, so He offers us the beauty of the sacrament of penance, something of which we should all partake often, especially in this holy season of Lent.
On this topic, Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI (as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) wrote: “Of course, the confession of one’s own sin can seem to be something heavy for the person, because it humbles his pride and confronts him with his poverty. It is this that we need: we suffer exactly for this reason: we shut ourselves up in our delirium of guiltlessness and for this reason we are closed to others and to any comparison with them.”
But Jesus is there, loving us, gently unwrapping the layers that bind us and cause us not to live in the freedom of the sons and daughters of God.
The Church is clear in the path she lays out this Lenten season: We need to become aware of our sins, and having owned up to them, we need not to despair, but to trust in the Lord who desires to heal and save us.
Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent
Psalm 130: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
Romans 8: 8-11
John 11: 1-45 or John 11: 3-7, 17, 20-27, 33B-45
Father Cush, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, serves as academic dean of the Pontifical North American College, and as an assistant professor of theology and U.S. Catholic Church history.