There once lived in a German village a very wealthy and leisurely couple. They were Catholic but rarely if ever stepped into a Church. They never made time to pray. They rarely received the sacraments, and hardly ever served their neighbors. They just weren’t developing a friendship with Christ. They were more interested in their social life. After many years God blessed them with a child, whom they loved dearly, they even had him baptized. But, as we all live in a fallen world of free will, while he was very young, there was a terrible accident and the baby died. The couple was devastated. Their sorrow soon turned to anger and hopelessness, and so they came to speak with a priest.
“If God loves us,” they asked “Why did he do this to us?” The priest answered, “God does indeed love you. But he didn’t do this to you. He didn’t cause the accident, but he did take your son to heaven. And his taking of your son to heaven can be seen as a sign of that love.” They didn’t like that answer. So the priest told them a story.
A good shepherd prepared a delicious feast for his sheep. The feast was made of the best alfalfa hay and oats and most sheep would’ve drooled at the sight of it. But when the shepherd opened the sheep pen, his sheep wouldn’t come in and eat it. He called and whistled and sang, but they just kept wandering farther and farther away. Finally the shepherd went out and picked up a little lamb, carried it into the pen, and set it down beside the food. When the other sheep saw the lamb eating hungrily, they all made their way into the pen to enjoy the feast.
“This is what Jesus has done for you,” the priest said to the couple. Until now you’ve always refused to prepare yourself to come to the great feast he has prepared for you in heaven, no matter how many invitations he’s sent you. You’ve been giving so much attention to earthly comforts that you’ve neglected the care of your souls. And now our Lord has brought your son to heaven. Did you consider that maybe God is using his death as a way of drawing you in? In this act of taking your child to heaven, whom you love so much, our Lord hopes you will find yourselves inspired to follow Him in the Christian way here on earth so that you can follow your son into Heaven. Our Lord is saying to you, “Come to me I am the resurrection, I am the life. Your son lives here with me in Heaven. If you believe in me, even if you die, you will live. Come to me.”
Now in our Gospel today Martha and Mary are bit like this German couple. They are both stunned by the death of their brother Lazarus, probably a young man who died a rapid death. They’re not only in grief but a bit angered that Jesus didn’t come more quickly to prevent Lazarus from dying. Both Martha and Mary say to Jesus, “Lord if you had been here our brother would not have died.”
So Jesus leads these sisters to authentic faith and hope by asking two questions. First he asks a question about hope, he says, “Do you believe that your brother will rise?” And Martha does answer in the affirmative saying, “Yes, I believe that my brother Lazarus will rise from the dead on the last day.” This response is typical for a pious Jew of that time period. They believed that there was some sort of survival after death and that there is some sort of judgment at the end of time. But this hope of life after death was kind of vague and impersonal, not much to grasp onto.
The second question that Jesus asks is about faith; the first question was about hope and the second about faith. He asks, “Do you believe that I am the Resurrection and the eternal life you are looking for? Do you believe that in and through me you will have life beyond death?” And Martha answers, “Yes.” And making an act of faith she says to Jesus, “You are the Christ the Son of God, come into the world to save us from sin.” Her hope for life after death is no longer a vague concept. Her hope for life after death now has a name, and this name is Jesus.
These two questions posed to Martha about hope and faith still confront us today. If Christ were to ask today the average American about life after death, the vast majority of Americans would still answer in the affirmative. Yes, there is something beyond death, and it has something to do with the moral choices we make in this life. But again this hope is vague; God is imagined to be a lenient Judge where everyone goes to Heaven. This answer gives no concept of living deep within the life of Jesus, a life given to us in baptism and maintained by prayer, Sunday Mass, good works, and all the sacraments. Christ also asks us the second question, “Do you believe that in Christ alone we find the resurrection from the dead and that in the risen Christ we see our own future communion with God?”
It’s a yes to these questions, a yes to Jesus Christ that guides us to real Christian hope. It’s the hope of freedom from the corruption of sin and death made possible through the gift of our Lord’s passion and resurrection. It’s the hope of that great feast in Heaven.
Now the risen Lazarus confirms the truth that Jesus can conquer death. But his rising from the dead prefigures and points us to the perfect conquering of death in Jesus. Lazarus points us to the glory of Christ raised forever. In Lazarus we see the beginning of Christian hope where all faithful disciples will one day share God’s glory, a heavenly glory that is beyond the tomb and beyond our deepest earthly and momentary grief.
The Good Shepherd still beckons to us today, “Come to me,” he says, “I weep too, I have entered into your pain, I have entered into your fear, I have entered into your loss, I am not far from you, I am very close, come to me and live.”
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley