Facing death with hope

Jn 11:1-45 (5th week of Lent, year C)
The Raising of Lazarus, Alessandro Magnasco, 1715

As a young priest, one of the most difficulty ministries for me is celebrating funerals. When I am with those who are grieving I find it very difficult to know how I should act and what I should say. Certainly the most important thing is simply being present to those who are suffering and showing compassion. At the same time, I think that it is crucial to give them some words that can help them. I strongly believe that as followers of Jesus we have been given a message that can transform grief into hope. It is a message that we need to share with others.

Throughout history Christians have always viewed death differently. Like everyone one else, followers of Jesus certainly mourned when their loved ones passed away. At the same time, their mourning was always infused with a certain hope that death was not the end of the story. Let me give two examples. If you have been to Rome, perhaps you noticed something very interesting regarding the names given to burial sites that highlights this. In ancient Rome, pagans called this place of burial a “necropolis” which means the “city of the dead”. Death, they believed, was the end of the story. Christians living in ancient Rome, however, called their places of burial a “cemetery”. We still use this word today. Cemetery means “place of rest” or even “dormitory”. Christians always believed that death is not the end. As it says in the preface for a funeral Mass, we believe that “with death, life is changed not ended”. Another example that shows Christians viewed death differently is the gospel we have heard today. At the surface, this story is about the miracle of Jesus giving back life to Lazarus. Below the surface, there are other layers of meaning. The actions and words of Jesus and those around Him are meant to convey a very important message about the meaning of death for the followers of Jesus. When we did deeper into the Gospel story of Lazarus it becomes clear that Christians have always viewed the reality of death differently.

In fact, the resuscitation of Lazarus is a symbol for the resurrection to eternal life. I choose those words carefully: resuscitation and resurrection.  Jesus does come and give life back to Lazarus. He performs a resuscitation, because though Lazarus is made to live again, he will not live forever. He will die again. There is a deeper level of symbolism that shows the firm belief that when Lazarus does die - a second time - Jesus will raise him to eternal life. One interesting symbol is the bandages that are on the hands and feet of Lazarus. The story is sure to point this out and Jesus instructs that these bandages be removed. Scholars argue that it was not a Jewish custom to bind the head and feet of a deceased person for burial. They claim, then, that these bandages are symbols of the “bonds of death” (see Ps 116) from which Jesus can set us free. Another interesting symbol is the fact that the story of Lazarus being given back his life, is similar to the Resurrection of Jesus Himself. For example in both: 1) there is a rock over the tomb, 2) Mary mourning, 3) an important role for Thomas and 4) burial clothes. All this is evidence that the story of the resuscitation of Lazarus is a symbol for the firm hope of Christians that after death, Jesus would raise them to eternal life.

More than this, the Gospel reveals that it is through the death of Jesus that we will be raised to eternal life. When we look closely at this gospel we see that the passion and death of Jesus is referenced throughout it. By linking the raising of Lazarus to Jesus’ death, the author is making the point that it is through the death of Jesus that we have the hope to be raised to eternal life one day. Lets look at two points:
  1. The placement of this miracle in the Gospel of John is significant. The gospel of John is broken into two parts: the Book of Signs and the Book of Glory. The Book of Signs is composed of seven signs or miracles. The raising of Lazarus is the final sign and is therefore a prelude to the Book of Glory, which is all about the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact st is because Jesus raises Lazarus that the Sanhedrin makes the final decision to seek a way to put Jesus to death.
  2. Jesus weeping. When Jesus approached the tomb of Lazarus why did He weep?Jesus choose to delay coming to see Lazarus while he was alive. Jesus Himself said that the death of Lazarus was good because it would lead to God’s glorification. Why weep? Some scholars argue that this is John’s version of the agony in the garden. Jesus is weeping as He prepares for his own death.
These ties to the passion and death of Jesus in the raising of Lazarus teach us that it is through the death of Jesus that we have the hope to be raised to eternal life.

This gospel story gives us the necessary strength to face the reality of our own death. Over the centuries, different philosophers have tried to give a definition for what a human being is. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas said that a human being is a rational animal. The more contemporary philosopher, Martin Heidegger, gave a startling definition for a human being. He said that humans are “beings made for death”. For him, the most significant thing about being a human is that we will one day all die. Knowing this, Heidegger noticed something troubling about human beings: we go to great lengths to avoid the reality that we will one day die. Now, some of this is natural, the subject of death is difficult to discuss. Yet is seems that our society goes to great lengths to ignore it. People occupy their entire existence chasing things - like money and power - that you simply cannot take with you. Heidegger argues that in order to truly live well, we need to confront the fact that we will one day die. There is much truth to this. Realizing that our time here is fleeting helps us to focus on what is truly important. But, if we lack faith, confronting the reality of our death can be a frightening and depressing prospect. Without faith there is nothing after death. This thought can lead to despair. One of my teachers once told me that if we tweak the advice of Heidegger, it is truly helpful. He would say that:
In order to live well, we need to look at the reality of our own death, but always with Jesus.
When we do this we realize:
  1. Life is short and we need to live it the best way possible.
  2. The best way to live our life is with Jesus. It is because of Him that death is not the end of our life. Jesus gives true meaning and hope to our life.
The story of the raising of Lazarus should give us the hope and courage to face the reality of our own death.

Death, as the saying goes, comes for us all. The miracle of the raising of Lazarus gives us a clear message that helps us to to face both the death of our loved ones and our own with hope. Because of His passion, death and resurrection, Jesus has given us the sure hope that we too will one day be raised to eternal life after our own death. Let us remind ourselves of this fact today: with death, life is changed, not ended. Or, in the wonderful words of the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore: Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come. The dawn is, of course, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.