In the summer of 2008, I had one of the most difficult experiences of my entire formation to be a priest. In order to gain more pastoral experience, I participated in a program at the University of Louisville hospital in my home state of KY called C.P.E. – Clinical Pastoral Education. This is an ecumenical program in which I worked as a hospital chaplain while learning how to be a more effective minister. Each of us in the group, of different faiths, and genders, and ages, were assigned to visit the patients in a particular department of the hospital. We would then gather as a group to discuss and study our experiences.
My department was particularly difficult: Palliative Care – which is the care that one receives in order to manage pain or to aid in making end of life decisions. Most of the patients I visited were dying or near death, but I felt like it was a great honor to be with these patients in their greatest need. I was glad to be able to sit down with the families and help them to make the right decisions. But, perhaps what I appreciate the most are the times I spent with patients who, while they were dying of a terrible cancer or intense pain, were comforting and praying for us, consoling us, and reassuring us. Shouldn't we be taking care of them? What was it about these particular patients that enabled them to be so other-centered, so charitable, so loving, so peaceful? How did they have more emotional and spiritual strength than we did? What made them different than the patients who gave up, or were bitter, or angry, or flippant about their death? I saw a wide range of reactions to death that summer. I myself had a wide range of reactions! The Gospel from today's Mass, of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, has helped me to understand better what I experienced during that summer almost three years ago.
In today's Gospel reading and in many other places in Scripture, we can see that wherever Christ is present at significant events, he sanctifies the situation. One of the reasons we celebrate Matrimony as one of the Church's seven sacraments is because Christ was present at the Wedding Feast of Cana, thus making it holy, making it a vehicle of grace, and a way in which his love is shown to the Church and to the world. One of the reasons we celebrate Baptism as a sacrament is because Jesus entered the waters of the Jordan River to be baptized by John even though he was without sin, thus making the waters of Baptism holy and able to wash away sins and give divine life. And so today, on this 5th Sunday of Lent, Jesus enters into our experiences of suffering and death, making them holy too, making suffering and death a mystery, taking away the crude and narrow finality that we too often give them and replacing it with his presence. Even death, even times of great suffering, when Christ enters into them, can become times of his healing and divine life. What was a time of grief and confusion for Mary, Martha, and their friends and family, became an occasion of faith, hope, and love.
Because Jesus Christ was fully human, we can feel comfortable inviting him into any place, any circumstance, any struggle, any memory whatsoever. He was once like us, completely human, in every way except our sinfulness. That humanity he still has but in a glorified state, no longer affected by the limitations he once felt alongside us. He did feel them. He felt the full range of human emotion. The Gospel mentions that he wept in sympathy for Mary and Martha and what Lazarus had to endure. He understands our lives and what we are going through. At the same though He is fully God and so wherever he goes, wherever we welcome him, he brings the fullness of divinity and all that God has to offer.
To places of pain and suffering he brings new purpose, meaning, and value; he brings the Resurrection. He is the Resurrection. To places of happiness and success he brings a glimpse and a foretaste of eternal happiness with him in everlasting life. He is everlasting life. We can very well believe that he loves us as much as he loved Lazarus. He wants to be for us, right here and now, Resurrection and Life. He wants to show us too that death is not the end, it is simply the step to eternal life. And he wants to give us a share in eternal life which grace brings to the soul even while we still live on earth. Mary and Martha have shown us how to enter into this type of relationship with Jesus Christ. "They said to him, 'Lord, come and see.'" As Catholic Christians, I think we would do well to have these words always on the tip of our tongue in prayer: "Lord, come and see."
To the students here: Whenever you get a good grade on a test, pray to him, "Lord, come and see" and he will share that joy with you and help you to know he is proud of you whenever you use the gifts he has given you well. After the 12:30pm Mass one of the new deacons on our team, Deacon Chris Hess, will celebrate his first Baptisms. There too we will pray with him and the family: "Lord, come and see" and we believe that he will be present there, strengthening Chris's new ministry and giving the parents the graces they need to cultivate the new spiritual life of their child. What else can we invite the Lord to come and see today? I know that I will be praying today for the Lord to come and see me through the last few weeks of seminary so that I can transition well into the priesthood. What is it for you? Perhaps it is a childhood trauma that has affected you for years. Perhaps it is a relative or a friend who has driven you to your wit's end. Perhaps it is a physical or psychological illness or the struggles of someone in your family.
Lent is a good time for self-reflection and re-focus. We still have a week and a half of Lent remaining. If your Lenten practices of renewed self-discipline, prayer, and generosity have been going well, then maybe this little prayer of invitation could be a way of going even deeper so that you can experience the glory of Easter all the more. If your Lenten practices haven't gone so well, then this could be a way of offering all that we have left to God. It was the widow outside of the Temple who offered one gold coin that gave the most, because it was all that she had.
Mary and Martha have taught us what power can come from the simple prayer of invitation, "Lord, come and see." But they have also taught us that when we run to the Lord without delay, with patience and humility, and without presumption, even though he may seem to delay he actually desires to exceed our expectations. For example, when St. Paul was blinded on the road to Damascus for persecuting Christians, he heard the voice of the Lord call him to conversion. He was also told to proceed to Damascus where he would be told what to do next. There Paul waited for three days, blinded, without food or water. But he had a prophecy that a disciple of the Lord, Ananias, would come, lay his hands on him, and restore his sight. This is all that Paul expected. Ananias, with some reluctance, did this but then he did even more! He also filled him with the Holy Spirit, baptized him, and fed and strengthened him!
This is the type of God that we have. He is not content to simply restore us to level zero. He wants to do that and so much more! He wants to restore us and then increase us! This may be hard to believe when the Lord doesn't respond to our invitation when we want him to. If Jesus had come to Lazarus in two days rather than four then Lazarus could have been cured and would not have died. But, Jesus knew that raising Lazarus from death to life would have a more profound effect on his disciples' faith than simply raising him from sickness to health.
"So then Jesus said to them clearly, 'Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.'" Despite this though, when Martha came to Jesus she said, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" not in order to complain to him or to ridicule him but because she actually believed that to be true. Her faith was so deep that she didn't even ask him to raise her brother Lazarus from the dead. She abandoned herself to him, trusting that if he willed it he could do it. Jesus, moved by her faith and the sympathy he felt, raised Lazarus from the dead. He could have left it at that! But he also asked his disciples to unbind Lazarus after he had risen. Then he had a meal with Lazarus and his family.
St. Augustine sees this episode as an image of the sacrament of Reconciliation. Whenever we sin, our spiritual lives can begin to die and we find ourselves in our own tomb of despair, isolation, or radical self-reliance. The call to reconciliation that this Lenten season brings is like Jesus crying out to each one of us, "Lazarus, come out." Through the words of absolution our sins are forgiven, we are given new life and emerge from the tomb. Jesus tells his priests, for us, "Unbind him, and let him go." We are released from the sins that bind us and are restored to full fellowship and communion with God and with the Church, our spiritual family.
All of this is offered to each one of us, individually, personally, during the remainder of this Lent and beyond. The prayer to the Lord to "come and see" and his call that we be unbound and "let go" – these are how a dying cancer patient can have more peace and strength then those sent to minister to her. When the Lord is present and we are set free, our happiness can be transformed from happiness that fades away to happiness the brings a taste of eternal life. And suffering and death are transformed from a meaningless pain or a senseless end, to experiences that give faith to others by the sheer power of what God can do in the heart of one who believes. He gives us the hope that with death life is changed, not ended.