Sunday reflection: John 11:1–45

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 11:1–45:

Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill. So the sisters sent word to Jesus saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.” When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was. Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” He said this, and then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. 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. Let us go to him.” So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away. And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.” As soon as she heard this, she rose quickly and went to him. For Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still where Martha had met him. So when the Jews who were with her in the house comforting her saw Mary get up quickly and go out, they followed her, presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”

So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” And when he had said this, he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”

Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.

Yesterday, several men in my parish got together to go through this Gospel reading, one of three options for today’s Mass, and one of the most prominent in the New Testament. The raising of Lazarus is the final miracle Jesus performs in John’s Gospel before going to Jerusalem. Interestingly, only John tells this story; it is not found in the other three Gospels, despite its significance. In fact, Jesus retreats to Ephraim for a while, and then re-emerges shortly afterward to spend time with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary in Bethany before going to Jerusalem for the Passover and the Passion.

We all offered a few thoughts on what in this passage spoke most to each of us. I’ve written about this passage in my reflections before,  but one point from the discussion stuck in my mind most clearly, as I had not considered it before. To me, the story of Lazarus shows how the Lord grieves over our fallen state and attachment to sin. “Jesus wept” speaks not only to Jesus’ love for Lazarus, but for all of us, and how we consign ourselves to death through our attachment to sin. Jesus comes to us to provide a path to eternal life out of that self-sacrificial love, and it’s not long after that when Jesus goes to Jerusalem to die for all of us so that death itself can be conquered.

“Jesus wept” did get some attention in our group, but one person noted a passage that I have overlooked. When Jesus instructs the people to “take away the stone,” Martha, ever the practical woman, reminds Jesus that a dead body has been in the tomb for four days, and that decay will have progressed significantly. “Lord, there will be a stench,” Martha warns. Sometimes when this passage comes up, it can produce a wry smile, knowing the outcome of resurrection, but also of the practicality of Martha in the prologue to Jesus’ great miracle and foreshadowing of salvation.

But this warning has more significance than I had previously thought.  We all live in a fallen state, and all have proclivity to sin. Sin, in its spiritual form, separates us from God, and that is a kind of death. In that sense, we are all dead men and women walking, and the longer we stay in sin, the greater that stench grows. As we continue to separate ourselves from God through sin, we become less and less aware of the stench as we grow more and more accustomed to it. Our desensitized consciences bother us less and less, and the stench becomes normal. At some point, we grow so attached to our sin that we might even learn to prefer the odor to its absence.

Even so, when we do confront our sins, what do we tend to do? We repeat the pattern set by Adam and Eve and attempt to hide it away from the Lord. After eating the forbidden fruit, Adam and Eve try to hide in the garden. After we sin, we compound it by hiding it away, assuming that we can keep our separation from God a secret — lying to both God and ourselves in the process. We roll the stone in front of our spiritual tombs, to keep the stench from becoming known, and hide ourselves from the Lord. We immerse ourselves in spiritual death, and perhaps even learn to revel in it.

Jesus calls us to take away the stones and to come out from spiritual death. He has no fear of the stench, but He doesn’t ignore it either; He wants to cleanse us of it. Even when we realize our shame in sin and think we cannot possibly be worthy of forgiveness, Jesus stands in front of our tomb and tells us to allow Him to cleanse us, and join Him in eternal life.

Paul addresses this in one of the optional New Testament readings today, Romans 8:8-11:

Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you. Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.

Those who live only in the flesh — in sin, separated from God — have no life within them, and are already four days’ gone in the tomb. Only by living with the Holy Spirit within us can we have life return to us. The only way to do that is to acknowledge our stench, roll away the stone that conceals us from the Lord, and live in the life of Christ.

Jesus wept, and then He saved us by calling to us in our darkness and death. The Light and the Resurrection weeps for us, and calls us to salvation. Will we take away the stones that trap us in our own sin — or will we choose the stench?

The front page image is a detail from “The Raising of Lazarus” by Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet, painted in 1706. The original is displayed in the Louvre.