Recently, I’ve spent more time than usual with babies and small children. This past weekend, I went to Chicago to baptize the daughter of my friend from college, and the day after the baptism, I went to see my cousin’s newborn for the first time. On the way home, reflecting on the experience, I was surprised by how needy the two babies and my friend’s two other children, a two year old and a four year old, were. Needy might not be the best word, but I would bet that many of you readers, who may have more experience raising children than I do, understand what I mean. Small children, from when they wake up to when they go to bed, are active without stopping and always need care. They need someone to prepare food for them, help them put on their clothes, wash their hands or bathe them, etc. They are completely dependent on their parents.
Along with their total dependence, one other thing that I noticed about these children was the love that I felt towards them. By spending just a few hours with them and their parents, I felt this love quite intensely. I joke with my friend that this love is an “evolutionary advantage.” The reason why is that human offspring need at least 20 years of care to grow up and without the presence of this love to motivate the care, the parents would quickly tire of it. In fact, God’s love is spoken of as a parent’s love in various places in Scripture. A few years ago, I met a man on a retreat who told me that until his own children were born, he did not understand God’s love. For him, to imagine that God felt the same thing for him that he felt for his own children was an awesome thing that he could hardly wrap his mind around.
In the gospel passage today, we meet a Jesus who has deep relationships with people. Jesus became a human being, and human beings are social, so this means that Jesus had friends, but I think that we often don’t put the two things together. This is the meaning of the Incarnation. At the beginning of the passage, three of Jesus’ close friends appear: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. After Lazarus gets sick, the disciples say, “Master, the one whom you love is sick.” When your friends are sick, gentle readers, what do you do? You may worry about them and call them to see how they are doing. You may go visit them, bringing food or medicine. Jesus was the same way. When his close friend got sick, he felt it deeply in his heart, and even though his disciples tried to warn him that the trip to see Lazarus would be dangerous, he headed there.
When Jesus gets to the place, even deeper feelings emerge. He met Martha, who was worried, and he consoled her. “Your brother will rise.” When Jesus talked to the Jewish leaders before, resurrection was an abstract concept, but here it’s completely different, the person of Jesus. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” What Jesus asks is not, “Do you believe in the existence of the resurrection?” but “Do you trust me?” Martha replies, “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah.”
The dialogue with Mary is even deeper. Mary gets up from where she is seated at home and goes to look for Jesus. When she finally finds him, she prostrates herself before him while she cries. How does Jesus react when he sees her crying figure? He’s angry and agitated at the suffering of his friend. This is not the reaction of someone looking in from the outside but the reaction of one who has become incarnate to the point of being moved by his fellow human beings. On top of that, Jesus does something next that no one expects. He asks where Lazarus’ tomb is, has someone lead him there, and weeps in front of the tomb. The Jewish leaders who see this, even though they still harbor doubts, cannot fail to recognize: “look how much he loved Lazarus.”
Gentle readers, we now enter into the Fifth Week of Lent. How is your Lent going? Has your penance served to deepen your relationship with Jesus? Has resurrection transformed from an idea no one understands to a personal encounter with Jesus? Has this personal encounter transformed from something you think of in your head to something that moves you in your heart?
In the case of the third character that appears, Jesus’ friend Lazarus, there is no longer anything beautiful about him. According to the gospel, because he has been in the tomb four days, he has begun to smell. A stone is blocking the entrance to the cave, so the smell doesn’t come out, but I would imagine that it just keeps getting worse inside. What does Jesus do in response to this? Unafraid of what he will find on the other side of the stone, he asks the people around to take it away. What’s more, when the smell comes out, he raises his hands and prays, so that all can hear. In a loud voice that reverberates to the back of the cave, he shouts: “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus comes out with such an appearance that it’s hard to look at him, but Jesus, without running away, orders the crowd to let him come through. In the end, Lazarus is saved by his friend Jesus’ faithful love and experiences resurrection in his own life.
A Scripture scholar says that in the gospels, often the models of discipleship are not the disciples but Jesus himself. This passage that depicts the story of Lazarus is no exception, I would propose. Just like my friends who care for small children, the Jesus who appears here is really concerned about his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and in this way demonstrates God’s love for humanity. Do you believe that God loves us in this way? In John’s gospel, belief is not agreeing with a conclusion but experiencing something for oneself. Thus, when you are worried, sad, or in a dangerous place because of a strong smell, can you let God’s love in? Can you hear the voice of Jesus that takes away the stone in front of your heart and shouts: “come out”?
As we journey toward the Crucifixion on the way to Easter, I pray that we can perceive ever more deeply the presence of the Jesus who walks with us and love ever more faithfully the people around us, in imitation of him.