Sunday, March 17, 2013

Homily 5th Sun Lent, 3rd Scrutiny, Year A Readings

In the summer of 2008, I had one of the most difficult experiences of my entire formation to be a priest; I participated in a program at U of L Hospital 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, 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. Perhaps what I appreciate the most, though, are the times I spent with patients who, while they were dying of a terrible cancer or intense pain, were comforting and praying for me, consoling me, and reassuring me. Shouldn’t I be taking care of them? What was it about these particular patients that enabled them to be so other-centered, so loving, so peaceful? 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 five 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, grace-filled, and a sign of his love. 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 lives too, particularly our experiences of suffering and death, making them holy too, making them a mystery, and 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, of hope, and of love.

Because Jesus Christ was fully human, we can feel comfortable inviting him into any place, any circumstance, any struggle whatsoever. He was like us, completely human, in every way except for our sinfulness. That humanity he still has in heaven, 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 too. The Gospel mentions that he wept in sympathy for Mary and Martha and for what Lazarus had to endure. He understands our lives and what we are going through. At the same time 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. To places of happiness and success he brings a glimpse and a foretaste of eternal happiness with him in everlasting life. He wants to be for us, right here and now, Resurrection and Life. He wants to show us too, like he showed Martha and Mary, that death is not the end; it is simply the step, God-willing, to eternal life. 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, for example: 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. What else can we invite the Lord to come and see today? What is it for you? Perhaps it is a childhood trauma that has affected you for years. Perhaps it is a physical or psychological illness or the struggles of someone in your family. What can you invite the Lord into to give it new meaning and life?

Mary and Martha have taught us what power can come from the simple prayer of invitation, “Lord, come and see.” 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. 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 and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she said this not in order to complain or 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 would do it. Jesus, moved by her faith and the sympathy he felt, did indeed raise 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!

One of the most profound ways Jesus is present to us, giving us peace and strength, is in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. St. Augustine saw the episode with Lazarus as an image of this sacrament. Whenever we sin, our spiritual lives can begin to deaden and we find ourselves in our own tomb of despair or isolation. 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. Then Jesus instructs the priest in the confessional, like he instructed the friends of Lazarus: “Untie 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 than 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 faith in the heart of one who believes. Jesus Christ gives us the hope that with death life is changed, not ended.

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