Today's gospel describes an encounter between the Christ and the sisters of the dead Lazarus.
Encounters with God abound in the Scriptures. Each one is the occasion of a new way of seeing and understanding, of exploring on a deeper level the story of salvation, and our place in it.
Each of the gospel readings for the first four Sundays of Lent also described encounters: between the Christ and the devil in the desert, with the disciples on the mountain, with the woman at the well, and with the man born blind.
In each of these encounters something important emerged: in the desert the Christ expressed the true nature of sonship, on the mountain the disciples learned the true nature of discipleship, the woman at the well saw more deeply into living water, and the blind man taught us to understand the deeper nature of seeing.
Today's gospel reading, which marks the passing of the mid-way point of Lent, is linked to the preceding gospel readings, but points us towards Easter, with its themes of death and resurrection, and offers a new, Christian understanding of death.
Several important ideas are used in this gospel passage: life, death, love and faith. As the story unfolds, these ideas take on a new and deeper meaning. Jesus
loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
When the sisters sent a message to the Christ, Lazarus is described as 'the man you love'. They made a claim on the Christ, based not only on friendship, but on the much stronger bond, love.
When the Christ arrived at the house, Lazarus has died. An important conversation takes place between him and Martha. Even though she grieves at the loss of her brother, she expresses her faith and trust in the Christ:
If you had been here, my brother would not have died.
She seemed to accept that Lazarus was dead, something final which could not be challenged or undone, but she again expresses her faith by saying:
But I know that, even now, whatever you ask of God, he will grant you.
Martha was asking that Lazarus be restored to life. The Christ then moves the discussion on to a different level:
Your brother will rise again.
To which Martha replies,
I know that he will rise again on the last day.
The Christ replies,
I am the resurrection. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.
He then invites Martha to assent to this, which she does. The condition of Lazarus being restored to life is faith in the resurrection.
Lazarus is brought back to life; he is not given new life, but the same life as he had before his death, with the same conditions and limitations, with death coming inevitably. But on the deeper level on which the Christ speaks, another kind of life is foretold.
Death would seem to be an end, final. This idea is challenged, and changed in the gospel. Our Lord was speaking of himself, and what he would achieve and bequeath to mankind by his death and resurrection.
He was on his way to Jerusalem, where, in obedience to the will of the Father, and out of love for the Father, he would die, and rise again, but in a way quite different from Lazarus. The seeming finality of death disappeared, and something greater and grander was born.
Our Lord was promising another kind of life, for which death was a preparation. Death is not an end, a finality, but the condition of passing into another kind of life, which is unbounded, has no limitations, eternal life with God.
By his death and resurrection the Christ offered to those who believe the reality of this new life. Lazarus did not receive new life, he was restored to his old life; the risen Christ brought a new kind of life, the old life gives way to a new life.
We express this truth this in the preface of the Mass for the Dead, when we celebrate the death of a Christian; life is changed, not taken away.