FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT
Ez 37, 12-14
Rom 8, 8-11
On the previous Sundays, we took part in a progressive catechesis about the mystery of the Lord and our condition as baptized persons: Jesus is the Messiah who was tested like us but always faithful to the plan of Kingdom (1st Sunday); he is the Son to whom we have to listen and in whom the glory of God is revealed (2nd Sunday); he is the gift of God who, as living water, can fulfil the deepest desires of men and women (3rd Sunday); he is the light of the world who liberates men and women from darkness through faith (4th Sunday). This Sunday, the solemn declaration of Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11, 25) constitutes the key to the reading of the biblical texts of the liturgy. Jesus, raising Lazarus from the dead, shows in advance the power of his resurrection and reveals himself as the Lord of life.
The first reading (Ez 37, 12-14) is taken from the Prophet Ezekiel, who shared with the people of Israel the experience of the exile that represented the most tragic moment of its history. The influence of his prophetic word was a determinant, both for those who suffer the bitterness of deportation to Babylon and for the Israelites who returned to their land. He instilled courage and hope in the first ones; to the second ones, he assured them of the foundation, not of a new political state, but of a new kingdom whose foundation would be in the temple of the heavenly Jerusalem.
The text presents to us the concluding part of the famous vision that the prophet had, whom God made to contemplate a heap of dry bones in a big valley. These bones scattered in the valley represent the people, desperate and sunk into the deepest discouragement: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.” (Ez 37, 11) The prophecies that announced the future return to the land and the defeat of the enemies were not welcomed by the people with much enthusiasm at the beginning: “They keep saying, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope has gone.’” (Ez 37, 11) The uncertainty and the suffering were too great and they seemed to surpass the strength of the small community of exiles who felt close to total annihilation, like abandoned and piled up in their graves (Ez 37, 12).
Ezekiel contemplates a vision filled with movement and sound, which brings to mind the original creative act of God through the word (Ez 37, 7-10). By the work of the prophetic word the ruah, the spirit, the force and the dynamism of life from God, bursts in on those blackened skeletons, the earth trembles, a sound of clattering is heard, the bones are covered with flesh and stand up on their feet, a vast army. God infuses new life to those lifeless bodies (v. 14) and a people with a new spiritual heart stands up (Ez 36, 26-27), a people filled with hope, ready to return to the land of Israel (v. 12) and capable of knowing the Lord in their faith (v. 14).
The second reading (Rom 8, 8-11), taken from the marvellous “hymn to the Spirit of life” which is the Chapter 8 of the letter to the Romans, teaches us that the vision and the prophetic word of Ezekiel go beyond their concrete historical horizon and reach all men and women of all ages. The Spirit of life acts as saving power of God in “the body dead because of sin” (Rom 8, 10).
On the one hand, the Spirit is the “Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead” (Rom 8, 11), “the Spirit of Christ” (Rom 8, 9); on the other, it is “the Spirit of God who dwells in you”, an expression that Paul repeats twice in this text (Rom 8, 9.11). The Spirit is transformed, therefore, at the point of contact between the redeemed man and the saving power of God in Christ. It is not only the vital principle of the new life of the believer (Rom 8, 9: “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.”), but also the seed and the source of a life similar to that of the Risen Christ (Rom 8, 11: “If the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, then he who raised Christ from the dead will bring your mortal bodies to life also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.”).
The gospel (Jn 11, 1-45) is the narration of the raising of Lazarus, which constitutes the seventh sign that Jesus performed in the Gospel of John, the last before his death on the cross. As sign, according to Johannine thought, it possesses first of all a revealing character. In it the divine glory present in Jesus is shown, that is to say, the saving power of God is unfolded in favour of men and women through the work of the Son. The sign that Jesus performs in Bethany is an anticipated revelation of his paschal victory over death.
When Jesus arrives at Bethany, Lazarus is already dead. The dialogue with Martha constitutes the fundamental interpretation of the sign performed by Jesus (Jn 11, 21-27). Constructed with the style typical of John, characterized by wrong understanding of the persons speaking to Jesus, is an authentic revelation of the mystery of the Son who, in the same way as the Father, “raises the dead and gives them life” (Jn 5, 21). Jesus announces to Martha: “Your brother will rise again.” (Jn 11, 23) She, like all Hebrews, with the exception of the Saducees, believes that God will raise the dead at the end of time (v. 24) and she understands the words of Jesus in this sense.
Jesus, however, takes another step and tells her: “I am the resurrection and the life.” (Jn 11, 25) With this phrase, Jesus announces two fundamental things to Martha. Firstly, he reveals to her that he is and he works the resurrection, because he is life. Secondly, he manifests that the gift of the resurrection is an actual reality, already present in history and not something that belongs to the eschatological future. For those who believe in Jesus, the resurrection is a power and an active and dynamic reality from now on, even if all its fullness and power will not be manifested until the moment of the final resurrection. Whoever has already reached eternal life by means of faith and of the word of Jesus, in effect, will never die.
Before the words of Jesus, Martha, as an authentic believer, responds with a triple confession of faith: “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world.” (Jn 11, 27) Three titles given to Jesus, who, in the Johannine thought, manifest the Christian faith in its highest degree of maturity (cf. 1, 49-51; 6, 69; 20, 29).
The text repeatedly emphasizes that Jesus was deeply moved before the death of his beloved friend and the pain of the sisters (11, 33.35.38). His sentiments reveal to us not only his full humanity but also the reaction of God before suffering and death. The culminating moment is the arrival of Jesus before the tomb of Lazarus. The corpse is already four days in the tomb (11, 39), a time that, according to rabbinic beliefs, marked the definitive death: the return of man to dust and of the life breath to God who had given it to his creature (cf. Eccl 3, 20; 12, 7).
Before the reality of death, Jesus invites Martha to have faith: “Have I not told you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” (v. 40) The “glory of God” is the presence and the saving action of God in favour of men and women and which has been manifested in an eminent way in the Jesus’ flesh. Only through faith can the glory of God be experienced, that is, the life that only Jesus can give.
Jesus faces death praying, with a prayer that is a gratitude to the Father and revelation for men and women (Jn 11, 41-42). The Son has nothing to ask since “the Father has entrusted everything to him” (Jn 3, 35), but should proclaim to the world his unity with the Father “that they may believe that you sent me” (Jn 11, 42). Finally, the word of Christ resounds as a loud cry in front of the tomb: “Lazarus, come out!” (v. 43) His word conquers death like the word of the Creator that made life emerge where it did not exist (Gen 1). The word of Christ that raises Lazarus to life is the word that all believers hear at the moment in which they come out of the baptismal font passing from an old life to a new existence. It is also the word that all believers will hear at the end of their life: “The dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who have heeded it shall live. An hour is coming in which all those in their tombs shall hear his voice.” (Jn 5, 25.28)
The signs of the empty tomb of the Risen Lord will be similar to those of the tomb of Lazarus: the stone was removed, the wrappings on the ground, the cloth that covered the head rolled up in a place by itself (cf. Jn 20, 7). Lazarus’ coming back to normal life through the work of Christ is an anticipated expression of the saving power of his Resurrection. The sign of Bethany is also an invitation to believe in life and to fight for it in all its expressions. The disciple of Jesus, reborn to eternal life in baptism, carries within him the seed of true life and the power that impels him to give and to defend life until the day comes when he will enjoy eternal communion with the living God.