“As it comes closer to the Passion of Jesus,” observed Father Hans Ur von Balthasar about today’s readings, “Lent raises the penitent sinner’s hope to unmeasurable levels.” Each of the readings today speak directly about rising from the dead. Thus, as we move toward Holy Week and the pain and darkness of Christ’s sufferings, we are buoyed by the knowledge that, as the Lord told Martha, “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
The reading from Ezekiel is the conclusion of the prophet’s vision of the valley of dry bones (Ez 37:1-11). “The hand of the Lord came upon me,” wrote Ezekiel, “and he led me out in the spirit of the Lord and set me in the center of the broad valley. It was filled with bones.” The bones represent the exiled Israelites, languishing in Babylon, severed from their land and former lives. Worse, they are in need of spiritual rebirth. And so the prophet proclaims a re-creation, with a reference back to the creation story: “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Listen! I will make breath enter you so you may come to life” (Ez 37:4-5; cf. Gn 2:7). The word of God opens the way for spirit and life.
The opening of John’s Gospel also focuses on the saving word of God: “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race ...” (Jn 1:3-4). This sets the theological stage for the last great sign performed by Jesus: the raising of Lazarus from the grave. It was an act resonating with great love — for Lazarus, for Martha and Mary, for the fallen human race — as well as tremendous sorrow, even anguish. This is evident in the shortest verse in the Bible: “And Jesus wept” (Jn 11:35). The description immediately prior is even stronger, for upon seeing Mary and the others weeping, Jesus “became perturbed and deeply troubled ...” (v. 33).
The death of Lazarus was deeply troubling, of course, because he was a close friend of Jesus. But Lazarus also represents the fallen, desperate state of everyone after the Fall. “God wept,” wrote the fourth-century bishop, Potamius of Lisbon, “because human nature had fallen to such an extent that, after having been expelled from eternity, it had come to love the lower world. God wept, because those who could be immortal, the devil made mortal.”
Death is not just a challenge or a “stage” in our existence. It is the enemy. It is ever present, even if we try to avoid thinking of it. But, eventually, we cannot turn away. When Jesus first arrived, Martha expressed her belief in “the resurrection on the last day,” but she sounds uncertain; she is shaken. Which is why Jesus uttered these profound and transforming words: “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live ...” Martha’s faith, like the dry bones in the valley, was revived and enlivened. Asked by Jesus if she believed the words of God, she confessed her faith, just like Peter: “I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God ...” (cf. Mt 16:16). Those who believe in Christ are, as Paul tells the Roman, “in the spirit,” for the “Spirit of God dwells in you.” During our time on earth, even during the dry and dark moments, the Word gives life. Filled by the Spirit, we can look with faith to everlasting life, for Jesus has seen and entered the grave, emerging victorious over the ancient enemy.
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report.