5th SUNDAY OF LENT – March 26, 2023

 

5th SUNDAY OF LENT – March 26, 2023

Ezekiel 37: 12-14; Romans 8: 8-11; John 11: 1-45

 

Theme: Jesus Opens Our Graves and Have Us Rise From Them

Today is the fifth and last Sunday of our Lenten Journey to the celebration of the Paschal Mystery of our Lord Jesus Christ. As it is my custom, let us recapitulate all the lessons that this Lenten Season taught us so far. The liturgy of Ash Wednesday was the kickoff of this Lenten Journey. The Scripture readings of that Mass taught us that conversion was a necessity. We need to repent. The ashes we received on our foreheads reminded us that since conversion is a necessity, then we should not postpone but start working on it “now” because remember, “we are dust and unto dust, we shall return.” Jesus, in that Gospel, exhorted us to do the Works of Penance:  Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving, as we journey through this forty-day penitential time.  The liturgy of the first Sunday taught us that the devil continues to tempt us today as he did with our ancestors Eve and Adam, and with Jesus in the desert. He knows that sin separates us from God and from our brothers and sisters, that is why he leads us to sin and so damages our relationships with God and with one another. His objective is to see us condemned as he is already condemned. The scripture readings of the first Sunday invited us to resist all the temptations of the devil as Jesus did in the desert. On the second Sunday, the Bible readings taught us that we are on our journey of faith, not only toward the Paschal Mystery of Easter but also toward our heavenly “Promised Land” at the end of time. The story of the transfiguration we heard in the Gospel showed us what our bodies will look like in the kingdom of heaven. Unlike Peter who suggested building three tents there, meaning that to stay there in that “glorious state”, Saint Paul, In that second reading, encouraged us to bear our share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes, not from human beings, but from God. So, our “journey of faith” consists of bringing the Gospel to others so that they too share the glory of the “Transfiguration” at the end of time. The scripture readings of the third Sunday marked the beginning of a series of John’s Gospel until the end of Lent because the Church prepares the catechumens for the sacraments of initiation that they will receive in Easter. In the Gospel, we heard the story of the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Two topics directed that conversation: the “Living water” and the “Divine identity of Jesus”. The way God provided drinking to the thirsty Israelites in that Sunday’s first reading, is the same way Jesus told us through the woman that he had Living Water to offer us which would give us eternal salvation. Regarding the second topic of their conversation, Jesus led the woman step by step in her faith journey until she realized that the one speaking with her was the Messiah. The woman became a missionary; she brought the news to the townspeople drawing them to Jesus. The catechumens who will be baptized in Easter and all of us who will renew our Baptismal Promises are expected to become the missionaries who bring the Gospel’s news to others inviting them to come to Jesus and have their own experience with him. In this way they can say as the townspeople of that Samaritan woman, “We no longer believe in him because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.” Last Sunday’s liturgy invites us to reflect on our journey of faith which culminates with God’s revelation. All the Bible readings share the same themes of Anointing, Light, and Water. The first reading recounts the story of how Samuel anointed David king of Israel. In the Gospel, after anointing the unnamed man born blind with clay made from his saliva, Jesus uses water to bring light to this man. And Saint Paul teaches us in our second reading that once (before baptism) we were darkness, but now (after baptism), we are light in the Lord. Jesus called us to believe in him, then he “will” bring us from the darkness of this world to the light of the kingdom of heaven.

Here we are on the last Sunday of our Lenten Journey. As we move closer to the Paschal mystery celebrations, the Bible readings of this fifth Sunday of Lent invite us to meditate on the movement from Death and Life. The first reading mentions this movement when Ezekiel prophesied over the people of Israel that God will open their graves, have them rise from them, put his spirit in them, and that they may live. This is what Jesus did to Martha and Mary’s brother, Lazarus, in our Gospel. He opens his grave, has him rise from it, puts his spirit in a dead Lazarus, and Lazarus lives. In Easter, through the water of baptism in which the catechumens will be baptized and all of us Christians will be sprinkled in the renewal of our baptism, we will pass from death to new life with Christ. The Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead will also give life to our mortal bodies as Saint Paul exhorts us in today’s second reading.

Our first reading is the second part of the well-known story, “Vision of the Dry Bones”. (Ezekiel 37: 1-14).  Let us call the context of the full story. Prophet Ezekiel ministered to the people of Israel from the Southern kingdom of Judah during the Babylon exile. The Babylonian empire invaded Judah in 605 BC. Johoiakim was retained as its vassal king Because he refused to pay tribute to king Nebuchadnezzar, Babylonian armies sacked Jerusalem and exiled their leaders in 598/7 BC. Most Biblical scholars agree that Ezekiel was part of this first group taken to Babylon. Then Nebuchadnezzar installed Zedekiah, the brother of Johoiakim, to oversee Judah. He too rebelled against the Babylonians. As a result, the Babylonian armies returned and devastated Judah, demolished the Jerusalem Temple, and deported more of Judah’s population into exile in Babylon in 586 BC. This was a horrible time for the people of Judah both those who were deported as well as those who stayed in the ruined land of Judah and Jerusalem. Ezekiel on one hand sees this political devastation as God’s punishment for his people failing to keep their covenant with God. But on the other hand, he envisages a possible repentance of his people which will result in their restoration by God because God will never abandon his people as his covenant is eternal. This is a short background to the account of the “Vision of the Dry Bones” in Ezekiel 37: 1-14.

Talking about the vision, Ezekiel reports to us that the spirit of the Lord led him out into a broad valley filled with dry bones. God asked him a question to know if these dry bones could come back to life. He answered, “Lord, you alone know that.” (v. 3, NABRE). Then, God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy over the dry bones these words: “Listen! I will make breath enter you so you may come to life. I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow, cover you with skin, and put breath into you so you may come to life.” (Vv. 5-6, NABRE). Note that “breath”, from the Hebrew word ruach, means “wind” or “spirit”. As he was prophesying, Ezekiel told us that he heard a loud clattering noise like thunder and saw the bones coming together, bone joining to bone. Sinews appeared on the bones, flesh grew over them, and skin covered them on top. Then God commanded Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath with these words, “From the four winds come, O breath, and breath into these slain that they may come to life.” (v. 9, NABRE). Everything happened as he prophesied. They came to life and stood on their feet, a vast army. (v. 10). Then God revealed to Ezekiel that these bones were the whole house of Israel (v. 11). Our first reading picks up from here.

Ezekiel already knows that the bones are his fellow citizens, the exiles in Babylon, and those who remained in their devasted lands of Judah and Jerusalem. The prophecy that begins our first reading is addressed to these miserable people of Israel. God promised them this, “I am going to open your graves; I will make you come up out of your graves, my people, and bring you back to the land of Israel.” (V. 12. NABRE). The biblical scholars are divided in interpreting this prophecy. Some support that this prophecy has nothing to do with the resurrection of the dead. It rather pertains to the restoration of the national hopes of Israel. Other Biblical scholars sustain that this text was about the resurrection of the dead as it explicitly describes resurrection from the dead. Here is my interpretation which reconciles both points of view. First, this prophecy concerns the exiles in Babylon who were considered spiritually dead as they lost everything (king, land, and Temple). Ezekiel is reassuring them that God has not abandoned them, and one day, he will bring them back to their land as he promised. Second, the prophecy is also addressed to the Israelites (especially the exiles in Babylon) who at the time of Ezekiel were nearing death and were worrying that they would never see the fulfillment of God’s promises personally. In his prophecy, Ezekiel let them know that their faith in God is not meaningless. Even though they die physically, God is going to open their graves and make them come out of their graves in order to fulfill what he promised them in his covenant. Note that God’s covenant is eternal.

Ezekiel’s prophecy applies to us today. We need to keep our hopes in God that the pains that we go through today will one day end, either while we are still living in this world or after we experience physical death. We should not consider death as a deception or a non-fulfillment of God’s promise. Rather, we Christians believe that when we die, on the last day, God will “open our graves and make us come out of them” to share the glory of his heavenly kingdom.  So, Ezekiel’s prophecy in our first reading explains well the theme of this Sunday’s liturgy: the movement from death to life that Saint Paul and Matthew talk about in our second and Gospel readings respectively.  

Today’s Gospel is the account of the resuscitation of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus. John commences this story by describing the main characters and their locations. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are siblings. They live in Bethany. Mary is described as the one who had anointed Jesus with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair. Both sisters Martha and Mary sent a word to Jesus regarding the illness of their brother Lazarus. They address Jesus as kyrie which can be translated as “Master” or “Lord”, and they describe their brother as “the one you love”. This description gives us an image of a good family to imitate. They are united. They care for and love one another.

Jesus received Martha and Mary’s invitation but decided not to go there immediately. After two days, he then asks his disciples to go to Lazarus in Judea. The disciples are concerned about returning to the town where the Jews wanted to stone Jesus. (See last Sunday’s Gospel). In his reply to their concern, Jesus talks about the day and night, “those who walk during the day do not stumble because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble because the light is not in them.” (vv. 9-10). Jesus is our light. He enlightens our lives.

When Jesus arrived, Lazarus had already died and had been put in the tomb for four days. Martha and her sister Mary, each in her turn, met Jesus and expressed their disappointment to Jesus because he did not come on time. Both used the same words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (vv. 21, 32). Martha adds a detail in which she confesses her faith, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” (v. 22). Jesus consoles her by telling her that Lazarus will rise. Martha refers to the end-time while Jesus talks about the present time. We experience “new life” with Jesus here in this present time before we enjoy it fully in heaven at the end-time resurrection of the dead. This is the catechesis that Jesus teaches Martha and each of us. He tells us that he is the resurrection and the life. We who believe in him even though we die, live. Our physical death is not the end because we have eternal life with Jesus. (vv. 25-26).

Jesus accesses the place where they laid Lazarus. There is already a stench because four days passed since he died. He looks upward to his Father and says a prayer, and cries with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus rises. Jesus commands that he be unbound and then let him go. Here Jesus fulfills Ezekiel’s prophecy that we heard in our first reading. God promised to open the grave of his chosen people and make them come out. Jesus opens the tomb of Lazarus and has him come out of it. The same Jesus will open the tomb of sins that covered us for so long and make us rise from them on Easter when we Christians renew our Baptismal Promises, and when the catechumens will receive the sacraments of initiation.

We are at the end of this Lenten journey. Next Sunday, we will celebrate Palm Sunday and start the Holy Week during which we will accompany Jesus on his way to calvary. Let us prepare ourselves and on Easter, we let Jesus access our lives and call us to come out from the “tombs” of our old lives and give us new lives. This is the life in Spirit that Saint Paul speaks of in our second reading. He says that those who are in the flesh cannot please God. We Christians are not in the flesh but in the Spirit because the Spirit of Jesus dwells in us. Amen.

Rev. Leon Ngandu, SVD

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