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Fifth Sunday of Lent

April 10, 2011

Blessed Sunday!

Our Lenten season has undergone yet another shift.
Today we enter Passiontide, a time of mourning
as we enter more deeply into Jesus’ sacrifice.
Not all churches do this anymore,
but this is the time when statues and crosses are covered with violet cloth.
There are varying explanations of this.
The Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home
observes that the veiling of sacred objects has a general precedent
in the Old Testament use of the temple veil (Hebrews 9:3, among others),
which kept the Holy of Holies hidden from common view.
In Christian churches,
veiling was an outgrowth of the time when people did public penance for serious sins,
such as adultery, murder or denying Christ.
Initially, penitents were excluded from the church during Lent.
Later they were allowed to come to church,
but a veil was drawn across the front of the church during Lent
to indicate symbolically that sinners deserve exclusion from the church.
Eventually, the veiling was confined to images and limited to Passiontide.

Another explanation, taken from The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1909 edition, is that

the crosses are veiled
because Christ during this time no longer walked openly among the people,
but hid Himself.
Hence in the papal chapel the veiling formerly took place
at the words of the Gospel: ‘Jesus autem abscondebat se’
[Jesus hid Himself, John 12:36].
Another reason is added by Durandus [a liturgical writer from the 1200’s],
namely that Christ’s divinity was hidden
when He arrived at the time of His suffering and death.
The images of the saints also are covered
because it would seem improper for the servants to appear
when the Master himself is hidden.”

Part of the purpose of Lent, especially these last two weeks (Passiontide),
is to enter into the mystery of our salvation.
Before Christ died for us, a veil separated us from God (see Hebrews 10:20).
The veiling of crosses and religious pictures
allows us to enter into what it was like before Christ came,
what it was like to be separated from God.
This sense of separation heightens our sense of being brought back to God,
of being brought into intimacy with Him, when the veils are removed.
After we commemorate Jesus’ death on Good Friday, in a sense,
we re-enact the tearing of the Temple veil that revealed the Holy of Holies
(Matthew 27:51, Mark 15:38, Luke 23:45) by unveiling the crucifixes.
When we come to celebrate the resurrection,
the other images will be uncovered as we rejoice, in communion with the saints,
over the victory Christ won for us.

Father, help us to be like Christ Your Son,
who loved the world and died for our salvation.
Inspire us by His love,
guide us by His example,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit
one God for ever and ever. Amen.
(Opening Prayer for Mass)

Ezekiel 37:12-14 (God will bring us out of our graves and give us His Spirit)
Psalm 130:1-8 “With the Lord there is mercy, and fullness of redemption
Romans 8:8-11 (God’s Spirit dwells in us and gives us life)
+John 11:1-45 (Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead)

Lord, the one You love is sick
-John 11:3

We can all say that–about ourselves as well as about people we love.
We can each claim the honor of being “the one Jesus loves”,
and none of us are exempt from the infection of sin.
And like physical sickness, venial sins weaken us, putting us at risk of more serious sins.

Lazarus represents each of us.
He is one whom Jesus loves.
So are we.
And he’s sick.
So are we.

The first thing to notice is that this illness doesn’t just affect Lazarus.
His sisters have to take care of him, and they’re worried enough to send for Jesus.

Lord, the one You love is sick
-John 11:3

Perhaps I should say they’re smart enough to send for Jesus!
When we love someone who’s stuck in a pattern of sin, even minor sin,
we need to send for Jesus–we need to pray for them
and to encourage them to go to Jesus in prayer and in the sacraments–
in addition to caring for them as best we can.
And when we’re the sin-sick soul, the more people we have praying for us, the better!

But Jesus didn’t come right away.
Sometimes He doesn’t.
That can be awfully discouraging, especially if things go from bad to worse
as they did with Lazarus.
But Jesus always has His reasons–
whatever He does is done out of love for us, for our good.
St. John tells us that it was because He loved Lazarus–not in spite of it–
that He stayed where He was.
We’ll return to this thought as the story unfolds.

Two days later, Jesus told His disciples that Lazarus was asleep,
that it was time to go awaken him.
To Jesus, natural death is just a sleep.
He can waken us from that.
There’s no resistance.
Spiritual death is quite another matter.
When we’re spiritually dead, we’ve rejected Him.
St. John of the Cross remarked that

God exercises more power in sanctifying a single soul
than He did in creating the world,
for in creating the world He met with no opposition.

Imagine for a moment just how much power went into creating the universe,
the power that sent the sun and stars spinning in their orbits,
the power that dug the oceans and raised the mountains,
the power that ignited the spark of life.
God uses more power than that in saving a single soul…
He’s putting that power–indeed, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead–
at your disposal right now. Hold that thought.

When Jesus arrived, Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days.
That’s significant.
The story almost makes it sound as if Jesus could’ve arrived before Lazarus died
if only He’d responded right away,
but since Jesus only waited for two days,
He would’ve only gotten there two days earlier–two days after Lazarus’ death.
No, those four days have another significance.
Four days is when the process of decay begin in earnest, when you begin to stink.
The people of that time believed that the soul hovered near the body for three days
before leaving for good (Genesis Rabba 50:10).
At four days, one was dead dead.

These four days have spiritual meaning too.
They represent four stages of spiritual death:
there’s the death of Original Sin,
the death of breaking the natural law
(which is what we know to be wrong without anybody telling us),
the death of breaking the written commandments of Moses,
and the death of despising the Gospel of grace (i.e., rejecting Jesus’ message).
(St. Augustine, in the Catena Aurea)

They also represent four stages of temptation–
1) we desire it, 2) we agree to it, 3) we act on it and 4) it becomes habitual
(Alcuin, Catena Aurea).
By the time that’s happened, we stink.

St. Antoninus (Summa Theol. IV, t.14, c.6, 1,3.) tells of a monk who,
being one day on a journey, came upon a corpse.
When passing, he carefully covered his nose with his mantle.
The Angel who accompanied him in the figure of a man
did not appear to notice the unpleasant odor.
Afterward, they met a well-dressed man.
Then the Angel held his hand before his face as he passed.
When the monk wondered about this,
the Angel explained that the natural odor of a decaying corpse
did not bother him,
but the unnatural and unbearable smell of a soul in the state of sin
was enough to drive away the whole heavenly court…
And once when a very well-dressed woman came to her to speak to her,
[St. Catherine of Siena] could not be brought to answer even a word because
–as she later explained to her confessor–
of the frightful odor coming from the woman’s soul”
(found in The Glories of Divine Grace, by Fr. Mathias Scheeben).

So what Jesus is facing here is natural death and spiritual death at its worst…
when all our hope is gone.

Again we see the impact that personal sin has on friends and family.
Mary and Martha were mourning,
and people were coming from as far away as Jerusalem to mourn with them.
Jesus Himself was “troubled in spirit, moved by the deepest emotions” (John 11:33).
He wept.
Our sin, and the impact it has on our loved ones, breaks God’s Heart…
because He loves us so much.

Jesus is here.
In the Sacrament of Confession He is asking,

Where have you laid him?
-John 11:34

Where is your death?
He knows perfectly well, yet He asks us to show Him.
And by our very presence there we answer,

Lord, come and see
-John 11:34

He sees. He weeps. He loves.

Take away the stone
-John 11:39

Uncover the death that lies buried within you.

Lord…surely there will be a stench!
-John 11:39

Indeed there will. The stone is what’s keeping the stench in.
It’s all the things we do to keep other people from being aware
of just how sinful we are.
Martha objects, and with good reason!
Under normal circumstances, there’s good reason for leaving the stone right where it is!
But in the confessional, Jesus tells us to roll away the huge and heavy stone of shame.
The stench of our sins is a healing humiliation for us–in His Presence.
It is a source of satisfaction to Him.
He can only heal what we are willing to reveal.

The stone also represents our objections to the faith.
In the RCIA process, our main purpose as catechists is to roll away the stones
that get in the way of coming to Jesus, that keep people imprisoned.
Finally, the stone represents our hard, stony hearts.

Once the stone was rolled away, Jesus prayed.
Similarly, once our sins are uncovered in Confession, the priest prays over us.

Then Jesus called Lazarus by name.

Lazarus, come out!
-John 11:43

We can each insert our own name in that command.
Even if sin hasn’t entirely cut us off from the land of the living, it’s sent us into hiding.
We have been imprisoned by sin long enough.
The faith of others has brought Jesus to our tomb.
The stone’s been rolled away.
The Spirit of Him Who raised Jesus from the dead dwells within us (Romans 8:9).
That same Spirit can and will raise us to life spiritually
–and ultimately physically–
with our cooperation.
His power, His life, is at our disposal–He means for it to become part of us–
the deepest, most important part.
We come forth by doing penance and by living in the spirit,
avoiding the death of sin and growing in holiness
–not on our own power–we’re not strong enough for that–
but by the power of God’s divine life at work within us.
He makes it possible.
We have to put it into action.

Finally, Jesus told the bystanders to loose Lazarus and let him go free.
This is absolution.
We are unbound from our sin and set free.
Notice that Jesus involved other people–in the case of Confession, it’s the priest.
It can involve the rest of us too, though.
It’s not unusual for someone to try to turn their life around,
only to find that the people around them keep them bound,
expecting and/or even encouraging them to fall back into their past sins,
never seeing the person for who they’re trying to become.
Although there is a place for reserving judgment,
we need to encourage any signs of a new life,
to unbind people and let them go free of our negative expectations.

There are echoes of Baptism here too.
In Baptism we die to sin, to life in the flesh, and rise to life in the Spirit.
We come out of darkness into the Light of Christ.
That’s why we receive a candle.
In Baptism we’re freed from the bondage of sin (“untie him and let him go free”)
and clothed in a white garment.

Notice also that our Baptism cost Jesus His life.
It’s only possible because He died for us.
Jesus raised Lazarus on His way to Calvary.
From that day onward there was a plot afoot to kill Jesus
because the Jewish leaders were afraid that this miracle
would make everyone would follow Jesus (John 11:53).
In fact, they planned to kill Lazarus too! (John 12:10)

This happens in our spiritual lives as well.
When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, many people came to believe in Him.
When Jesus changes our lives, people will notice, and many will come to believe in Him.
Remember when I said a while ago that Jesus had a reason for waiting
and it was for Lazarus’ benefit?
Jesus waited until there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that Lazarus was dead.
Sure, Jesus had raised the dead before, but in both cases, they had just died.
Someone could say they’d just been in a coma & revived.
Can’t say that about Lazarus! He stinks!
And Jesus waited for word to get out
so that all their friends and acquaintances would be there
to comfort the grieving sisters.
Then He came into the picture and raised Lazarus from the dead.
Not only did Lazarus get a new lease on life,
but the people he cared most about now believed in Jesus!
Translate that into your own life for a moment.
God’s only letting me suffer and even die so that He can raise me up
and help my friends and family catch fire with divine love.
I’ll take that!

At the same time, there will also be people who will find our new life a threat.
They will become even more opposed to Jesus, and opposed to us.
Some may even try to “kill” us, either physically, through persecution,
or through temptation–trying to kill us spiritually.
And the temptation, of course, is the more deadly of the two.
Something to be prepared for.
One thing’s for sure…life will never be the same!

Lent is a season for having the stone rolled away from our tomb,
for removing obstacles to faith, uncovering our sinfulness,
and letting go of the hardness of our hearts.
It’s a time to respond to Jesus’ command to come out of the tomb of sin,
out of darkness, out of hiding, into God’s wonderful light.
It’s a time to be untied, set free,
trading burial cloths for our spotless Baptismal garment.

Then we will be ready to publicly renew the covenant God made with us in Baptism,
ready to show forth His glory by living in the Spirit, rather than in the flesh.

That’s what we will be doing in just over two weeks:
we will be publicly renewing our resolution to live forever, no matter what it takes.
If you’ve ever felt you got gypped
by not being able to make your Baptismal commitment yourself, publicly,
this is your chance!
This is our opportunity to make a public declaration
that we prefer Heaven and God and all of His promises
to absolutely everything else.
Here’s our chance to renew our very identity as children of God,
saints-in-training, citizens of Heaven.
In uniting ourselves with Jesus’ Passion and death,
we will die to our own desires, to “my way”,
so that Christ can have His way in our lives–
our hands and feet, thoughts and words and actions at His service,
doing what He wants to do here on earth in this place at this time.

Our Easter life should be as different from our old life
as Lazarus’ life outside the tomb was from his stay inside the tomb!

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