As we open our eyes each morning, we see life around us. We hear the whispers of nature, the hum of traffic, the lilt of a human voice. It does not take long for us to realize that death is here as well. It soon becomes very clear that life and death are both part of the cycle of nature. But unlike the rest of the created world, we humans know that we will ultimately die, and death becomes for us a specter lurking in the future, in a future that is a mystery for us.
In the readings for today, we are led past the inevitability of death to a consideration of life after death. Ezekiel’s words describe much more than a ghoulish scene from a Halloween poster. He is speaking to a people who have been defeated in war and deported to the land of the conquerors. As a nation, they are as good as dead. Through the prophet, God assures them that they will live again. They will be raised from death and filled with life. They will experience a new life, a life that springs from God’s own spirit. Here we see that what at first appeared to be the triumph of death is in reality a triumph over death.
The Gospel contains a story well known to us all. We see three people whom Jesus loves dearly: Martha, with whom Jesus carries on a profound theological conversation; Mary, who believes that Jesus has power over the life of her brother; and Lazarus, whom Jesus calls back from the clutches of death. This account may describe love among friends, but it is primarily a story about faith. Speaking to his disciples, Jesus says, “I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.” He then tells Martha, “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” At the end of the account we read, “Many...began to believe in him.”
Just what is it that we are called to believe? Is it that a broken nation will be reconstituted? Is it that one who has died will be resuscitated? As wonderful as these “risings” may have been, they were not really lasting. At a later time in history, the nation of Israel would once again suffer defeat. And though Lazarus may have been given a second chance at life, eventually he would again face the inevitability of death. No, we are called to believe in something much more profound. We are called to believe in a resurrection that transforms, a resurrection that is lasting.
While the account of the raising of Lazarus is quite straightforward, Jesus’ words to Martha are not. He says that either faith will keep us from dying, or, if we die, faith will allow us still to live. This sounds rather confusing, even contradictory. But in both statements Jesus is insisting that while death certainly threatens life, it has no power where there is faith. This might help us to see that he is talking about two kinds of life and two kinds of death.
First, those who believe in Jesus, even if they undergo physical death, will still enjoy a bond with him. In other words, they will live some kind of life. On the other hand, those who believe in him during this life will not suffer the dissolution of that life-giving bond. Mortal life will end with physical death, but physical death has no power over the life of union with Jesus. Jesus, who claims to be “the resurrection and the life,” asks us, as he asked Martha, “Do you believe this?”
Paul, who seems to have had some difficulty assuring the Romans of their own resurrection, understood what Jesus meant. He maintains that “if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness.” The basis of the teaching of both the Gospel writer and Paul is union with Jesus through faith. Both contend that this union is not severed by death. Paul goes on to insist that if Christ was raised from the dead, then we, united to him through faith, will also be raised. The bond of faith is lasting, and to deny one resurrection (ours), is to deny the other (Christ’s).
During Lent, we ponder these readings with their messages of new life. They assure us that our faith in Jesus, who is “the resurrection and the life,” promises our participation in resurrection and new life. We are invited to join in prayer with the psalmist. We too stand before God and the rest of the world, guilty of transgressions. We have been selfish and deceitful. At times we are arrogant and lacking in compassion. We allow violence to devastate the lives of others. Despite these failings, we are invited to trust in God’s forgiveness. God’s loving-kindness can redeem us and lead us into resurrection and life.Dianne Bergant