March 29, 2020
Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A
A key to understanding the passage of today’s Gospel (Jn 11:1-45) is that of friendship, of love.
The term “love” occurs three times in the passage (Jn 11:3,5,36), but it is the background to the entire episode; it refers above all to his friend Lazarus, whom Jesus loves, but it is evident also vis-à-vis his two sisters. Indeed, between Jesus, Martha, and Mary, there is a verbal exchange and gestures that reveal an intimate relationship, of expectation, and mutual love: the evangelist is keen to clarify that Mary was the one who had perfumed the feet of Jesus with ointment and had dried them with her hair (Jn 11:2); and when Lazarus is in danger of life, his sister send to inform Jesus (Jn 11:39). Therefore, John can say that Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus (Jn 11:5).
But as the theme of love underlines the whole passage, so there is another one that runs through it from beginning to end, namely death. The death that appears in Lazarus' illness, the death that finally takes him, and that seems to have the last word when Martha says that there is no more hope because Lazarus has been in the tomb four days (Jn 11:39).
So, we might ask ourselves, how are these two realities together? How is it possible that there is death, where there is love? Death can break the bonds of friendship, which is stronger?
It is a very current question.
We find it, this question, throughout the story, we hear it in the words of the sisters: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” (Jn 11:21,32), We find it in the tears of Jesus, who feels all the pain and the drama of His friend’s death.
We could say that faith must face, sooner or later, this scandal, this drama of death.
Perhaps this is why Jesus seems to linger before going to his friend; He does nothing to avoid his death, He lets him die.
He lets him die but then does not abandon him in death. He reaches him there.
How does He reach him?
The passage speaks of those “Jews” who had gone to Martha and Mary to console them (Jn 11:19,31), according to the practice of condolences that was a rite already widespread and established in the time of Jesus. They visit the sisters to not leave them alone in their sorrow, but they can do nothing against death.
Jesus’ visit is completely different.
He goes to wake up His friend (Jn 11:11), because for those who believe in Him, whoever believes in His faithful friendship, death is like sleep and, like every sleep, it’s not definitive, it’s not forever.
Jesus visits Lazarus and his sisters bringing as a gift His friendship, which is life: just as His friendship does not fail, so His life cannot be lacking.
In a way that is not immediately evident, alongside the death of Lazarus, John the Evangelist alludes to another death, that of Jesus Himself. We find an allusion at the beginning (Jn 11:8.16), and in an even more explicit manner at the end, when just because of Lazarus’ resurrection it was decided, by the leaders, to kill Jesus (Jn 11:47-53).
This death has a lot in common with the death of Lazarus: even the Father, despite being implored by the Son, does not spare His own deeply loved Son this extreme experience of abandonment.
But just as Jesus does not abandon Lazarus in the tomb, so neither does the Father abandon the Son but visits Him with a life that will fail again.
If there is something, therefore, capable of overcoming death, it is precisely and only this love: the bond that exists between Father and Son is a bond so strong and so secure that not even death can break.
And it is to this very bond of living in love with the Lord and between us, that we are given to share.