The 5th Sunday of Lent
(Ezekiel 37:12-14, Romans 8:8-11, John 11:1-45)
As I reflected on today’s readings, I had a flashback to my years in the parish. At the risk of showing my age, RCIA was just coming into vogue around the time I was ordained. In the old days, instructions were given in private. This created a bond between the individual and the priest, but not with the broader church community. The practice of individual instruction tended to privatize the faith. RCIA, on the other hand, reclaimed the ancient practice whereby the individual is initiated into the faith life of the community. The Church is a communion of love. Its members are drawn into the bond of Love of the Blessed Trinity. On the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the third scrutiny of the candidates for initiation into the church is celebrated.
This might be a good time to reflect upon our faith journey and reassess our commitment to gospel living. The scrutiny allows us to take our spiritual temperature, so to speak. Are we hot or cold in our commitment to the Lord? What areas of our lives remain unconverted? What are the things I should be doing, but am not? What aspects of my history need healing? The beauty of the scrutinies is that they allow us to take an honest look at our frailties and failings. With those insights, we can reach out in prayer asking God to protect us from all evil, bind up our wounds, and heal our brokenness. The season of lent is an excellent time to grow in awareness of our need for forgiveness and grace. It is an acceptable time to purify our minds and hearts. As we examine our consciences we can come to a deeper knowledge of Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
The purpose of the scrutinies is to uncover all that is weak, defective, or sinful in our lives, and then present it to the Lord for healing. As we ponder our dry bones, God the Father causes the breath of life to blow over us and brings us to the fullness of life in Christ. It is so easy to take our faith life for granted. Many of us were baptized as infants and completed our initiation rites according to the schedule set by the school we attended. Often, little expectation was given to anything but the accompanying party and gifts. In light of the abuse scandal and its subsequent coverup, we tend to get bogged down by the bad news of the church, rather than pondering the Good News of salvation in Christ. The prayer of today’s liturgy is that like Lazarus, each of us hears our name and as we respond to the Lord’s voice, leave the tomb and enter into the newness of life. At their core, the scrutinies are not about our sinfulness but about the overwhelming grace and abundant mercy of God in Christ.
The liturgy invites us to join the prophet Ezekiel in the middle of that valley full of bones. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we are encouraged to walk the length and breadth of that valley until we find ourselves. Like those piles of sun-bleached and dry bones, we feel lifeless and scattered, gnawed by hopelessness and despair. But, all is not lost. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to walk with us in the valley of death. There he bowed his head and breathed his life-creating Spirit into us just as he had breathed life into Adam in the garden.
The liturgy transports us from the valley of death to Lazarus’s burial site. I have always been intrigued by John’s attention to detail. For instance, Martha’s comment to Jesus when he tells the bystanders to roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb. “Master, he has been in there four days. By now his body has started to decay. The putrid stench will be nauseating” (Jn. 11:39). He who walks on the wings of the wind (CF. Ps. 104:3) is portrayed as standing at the gates of death. He who calls the stars by name, calls to his friend. “Lazarus, come out.” At the call of the Master, dry bones and rotting flesh become a vessel of the breath of life. He who takes no delight in the death of a human being, calls Lazarus out of darkness into the light of life. Hearing the voice of his beloved Lord, Lazarus leaped up and made his way out of the abode of death, bound hand, and foot by the winding sheet. Not only did Jesus call him back to life, but he also set him free from the bonds of sin and death. “Unbind him and set him free” (Jn. 11:44). As the Lord calls Lazarus into the fullness of life, he calls upon the people around him to do their part in removing the bonds that remain. The struggles of others allow us opportunities to be Christ to them.
Each one of us is tied up with things that hold us captive. We believe that these will never change. We believe that we are doomed to stay trapped in some dark and lonely place. Jesus came to Bethany and raised Lazarus from the grave. Standing at the door of our tomb, Jesus calls us by name, “Come Out!” The evangelist Matthew recorded Jesus saying: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mat. 11:28). Allow me to play with the words. “Come out of your tomb, and I will set you free from all that binds you.” We don’t have to struggle on our own because Christ has come to make all things new. Believing is a personal decision to respond to the call and entrust our lives to the One standing just outside our darkness. Lent is the acceptable time for us to receive the gift God has promised: “I will open your graves.” That’s just what God did for Jesus and now does for us. It is a time to accept God’s offer of life; repent of our sins; embrace the resurrected Jesus and the new life he gives us. At this Eucharist, let us ask God to restore us to the newness of life and to breathe his life-creating Spirit into us.