The Gospel for April 2nd, 2017: “The Raising of Lazarus”
Reflection: Does our Faith Lead to Hope?
The miracle Jesus performs by raising his friend Lazarus from the dead is more than a favor. This is the kind of literal reading that misses its significance entirely. Rather, it is an act that prefigures both Jesus’ own resurrection and, consequently, the salvation of believers from sin and death—the basis for our hope in eternal life. As such, it is a story that can be read to deepen our understanding of the connection between the virtues of faith and hope.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, faith is “the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself” (1814). In other words, if we believe Jesus is God Incarnate, we must choose to follow Him in this life according to the mandates of His word and His church.
On the other hand, hope is “the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (1817). In a sense, this is the additional belief that we will be rewarded for a faithful life with an eternal life of happiness with our Lord when we die. The upshot is we believe Jesus will save us as promised.
I provide these definitions of faith and hope because I think we can learn a lot about their connection from the way the other characters in the story react to Jesus’ action. Here’s what I mean. Jesus has no doubt He will save Lazarus either when He learns the man is ill (John 11: 3) or when He realizes Lazarus has died (14). He knows that this miracle will be performed according to His Father’s plan and timeline. This is why He follows the statement about Lazarus’ death with the comment: “And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe” (15). His point is the saving of Lazarus has a larger purpose in revealing God’s salvation plan that must not be derailed by selfish concerns.
The other characters, in contrast, have no knowledge of the larger plan; they only know Jesus has the divine ability to heal Lazarus in illness as He has healed others. When He does not do so, they think the opportunity has been missed. To represent the implications of this dissonance for faith and hope, let us consider the reactions of Martha, faithful disciple and sister of Lazarus, in this gospel.
When Jesus arrives in Bethany to tend to Lazarus, his friend had been lying dead in the tomb for four days. Martha goes to meet Jesus and has a puzzling conversation with Him that suggests both faith and disappointment. She tells Jesus if He had been there Lazarus would not be dead; she adds God will do whatever Jesus asks of Him; and she responds to Jesus’ answer that Lazarus will rise with, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day” (21-24). What is her state of mind here? I interpret her statements to mean she believes Jesus is the Messiah and that she is faithful to Him as Lord. And yet, she still thinks Lazarus’ life is lost for the time being, until the last day when the faithful are rewarded. Hence, she is still disappointed at Jesus’ late arrival and grief for her brother’s demise.
Jesus says to 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?” (25-26). Afterwards, Jesus repeats a similar conversation with Martha’s sister Mary. Finally Jesus goes to the tomb with Martha, Mary, and the other disciples. Despite his hints that Lazarus is not lost, the doubt that Jesus can do anything at this point is obvious. When He tells them to remove the stone, Martha says, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days” (39). In her view, Lazarus’ death places him beyond Jesus’ reach. As the story ends, it is clear to all God has power over death when Lazarus walks out of the tomb on Jesus’ command.
As I reflect on the comments of Martha and the others, I think about how it is possible to fully believe in Jesus’ teachings and God’s providence in this life, while still fearing death. Isn’t that really the source of the doubts of Martha and the others? In that limitation lays the distinction between faith and hope. We can believe temporarily believe in the righteous of God’s teaching and justice as a guide and source providence in our lives, while still clinging to that same life in fear of losing it. However, such faith is not sustainable without the promise of victory over sin and death. Jesus came to give us eternal life with the Father. This is a life without sin. A life of happiness with boundless peace and joy that should be welcomed and anticipated. It is the reason we should live with joyful hope and the reason to accept faithful lives following Christ.
This gospel raises an important question for our faith: Do we, in spite of our faith, still fear and regret death like Martha and Mary? Or do we have hope that the Resurrection we celebrate this coming Easter means we really have nothing to fear as Christian disciples? Now I’m not saying that we don’t still feel grief when loved ones pass or are confronted by the horror of tragic deaths of our brothers and sisters at the hands of violence and hatred. We should acknowledge the pain of loss we feel and strive to help others through their suffering whenever death touches us. And it is alright to admit it hurts. Yet, we must also embrace the hope that death means the passing from a fallen world into God’s hands. Whether through the cleansing of purgatory or through a joyful union in heaven, this really is a better place, where the dead can rest in peace from the scarring of a fallen world. I know some will say what about the possibility of Hell? That is a discussion of another time and place. However, I would just end with how much that reminds of the doubt of Martha when Jesus opened Lazarus’ tomb after four days. She underestimates Jesus’ power to save her brother. He is our savior who came to save all in His victory over death. I don’t know how He will do that. But Jesus does. Easter gives us cause for a glorious hope. No longer need we be afraid. Jesus saves!