5th Sunday of Lent


The famous Irish novelist Colm Toibin comes from Wexford and is a master wordsmith. He can describe the most minute details of growing up and his observation of people and situations around him. One of his novels called ‘Brooklyn’ was made into a film a couple of years ago and proved very successful. He has written another novel called ‘The Testament of Mary’ which has been controversial in the way it portrays the mother of Jesus. Mary only speaks rarely in the gospels. At the finding of the child Jesus in the Temple. “My son, why have you done this to us” (Lk 2:48). And at the first sign in the gospel of John – at the Wedding Feast of Cana. “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). The novel tells the story of how confused Mary is when she sees the direction Jesus is taking in his life. She thinks his followers are fanatics and misfits, leading him astray. Tradition has it that in her old age she went to live with the apostle John in Ephesus. Mary’s chapel is still in that Turkish town. The literary device Colm Toibin uses in ‘The Testament of Mary’ is that of questioning by the apostles and disciples coming to speak to her, asking her questions, trying to draw out from her the hidden memories of the past. It’s a little bit like the oral history project we are presently conducting here at The Cornerstone when we ask people to record their memories of what the building and what Cardiff was once like!

One of the strangest parts of the novel is her re-telling the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The miracle is presented as disquieting as much as glorious. Yes, it did happen. No, it isn’t clear that it was a good idea. When the dead come back, often things go wrong. The risen Lazarus is an object of fear and confusion. Sitting in a corner, half in and half out of this world. Listen to one or two things Mary says: “Slowly, the figure dirtied with clay and covered in grave clothes wound around him began with great uncertainty to move … like some strange new creature jerking and wriggling towards life”. And another sentence “Lazarus, it was clear to me, was dying. If he had come back to life it was merely to say a last farewell to it. He recognised none of us, barely appeared able to lift a glass to his lips as he was handed a small piece of soaked bread by his sisters”.

Let’s go to Sunday’s gospel text. John uses this as a ‘sign’ of the new world, which will be brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection is not just a resuscitation. It brings in a new order of reality not least in the way that the baptised are given the new life of union with God in this life and in the next. “On arriving at the house, Jesus found that Lazarus had been in the tomb four days already”. Jesus was in the tomb for three days. The power of his resurrection breaking through the barriers of sin and death, extends not just to four days but beyond into eternity.

I love the words on Martha’s lips. They are the unspoken words in all of our hearts, especially when things apparently go wrong and we do not understand. “If only you had been here my brother would not have died”. The “if only” questions lie at the heart and at the crossroads of every person’s life. I tried to say something about that a few weeks ago when I spoke of the place of the cross in the life of the believer and the significance of our kissing the wood of the cross on Good Friday.

Jesus said to her “Your brother will rise again”. Martha said to him “I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day”. In the last two hundred years before the time of Jesus, a number of Jewish people started to believe in life after death. You will see this in the last book of the Old Testament – the second Book of Maccabees (12:42-46).”It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead”. “I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day” Martha says – almost impatiently. “But I want him alive now. I don’t want to lose him. My faith isn’t strong enough to believe that union with God in heaven is the meaning and the destiny of us all”. Whilst fear of dying is common to us all, the reality of death itself and its implications is a different question.

“I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies, he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” That question is directed to each one of us. Going to the tomb, Jesus said “Take the stone away”. The early Christians would have recognised immediately the contrast between the people of Bethany “taking the stone away” and the stone in the Garden of the Resurrection which had already “been rolled away”.

“Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer.

I knew indeed you always hear me,

but I speak

for the sake of those who stand around me

so that they may believe it was you who sent me”.

This is not a prayer of intercession “Please help me raise Lazarus from the dead”. This is a prayer of intimacy with God, demonstrating the closeness between himself and his Father. This prayer, as much as the actions he performed in during the paralytic bind, giving the blind man sight and now raising Lazarus from the dead are all related to the unity between Jesus words and actions, the unity that existed between himself and God.

“Lazarus come out”. The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with bands of stuff and cloth round his face”. Do you remember the scene on Easter morning? “These were not with the cloths”. Unbind him. Let him go free. The death and resurrection of Jesus is to unbind us. To let us go free, not wrapped in the swaddling clothes of our birth or in the grave clothes of our death.

The reaction amongst the Jews is twofold. Some believed through the sign he performed. Others conspired to have him executed either because of his blasphemy or the fact that he was a threat to the law and order imposed by the Romans. There was always the fear amongst the Jewish leaders, and Herod himself, that any disturbance, or prophetic teacher, or miracle worker, would cause the Romans to take away what bit of freedom the people of Jerusalem and Israel had. That is why the High Priest Caiaphas said to the other Jewish leaders “It is better that one man should die for the people”. (John 18:14). Which of course leads us to the events of Holy Week, which we’ll talk about next Friday.


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