Saturday, March 24, 2012

Roll the Stone Away

Fifth Sunday of Lent Year A

Have you noticed how the massive crowds that swell during Good Friday celebrations every year seem to dwindle to the usual Sunday numbers at the Easter celebrations? This annual phenomenon begs the question: Where did they come from and where did they go? In spite of a culture which fears and denies death, the death of Jesus remains a vivid reminder of human mortality and thus its celebration becomes an annual Mecca drawing Catholics of various levels of observance, from the nominal to the deadly pious. Many ‘annual’ Catholics will return to church, a church whom they feel is historically linked to them and yet remains at the periphery of their daily lives, to celebrate both the birth of Jesus at Christmas and his death on Good Friday. Both birth and death are tangible realities which they can experience. The resurrection, on the other hand, remains largely conceptual to many.

The story of the Raising of Lazarus reminds us, however, that the resurrection is anything but conceptual and symbolic. It is objectively real. The story of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, a story of death and despair, life and hope, mirrors our own predicament, our own times, our own hearts. If we look carefully, we can see ourselves in every character. If we notice the rock bottom despair in this tale, we will recognise our own despair and our own complicity in the powers of death. Even so, we will also hear the liberating voice of Jesus calling us out to new life.

Although the resurrection refers primarily to coming back to life of the biologically dead, its implications are far broader than that. The raising of Lazarus is certainly prefiguring the resurrection of Jesus, as intended by the author of the Fourth Gospel. But for the early Christians the story of the raising of Lazarus was more than a pointer to the resurrection of Jesus. For them, this miracle is a challenge to never give up hope even in the hopeless situations in which they found themselves as individuals. Nothing is too late, when Christ is present. And even when one is consumed by the seeming finality of death, there is the promise and hope of resurrection.

Today, I would like to focus on the three commands issued by Jesus. The first command is ‘Roll away the stone.’ The stone which Jesus referred to here is the stone that is normally placed in front of a cave tomb to seal the body in. Its purpose was obviously not to keep the contents of the cave from escaping – dead bodies don’t run away. The purpose of the stone was to prevent wild animals, robbers and vandals from invading and violating the sanctity of the tomb, the place of rest for the deceased. But in the context of the resurrection, the tomb stone was no longer a source of protection but now seen as an obstacle. Unless the stone was rolled away, the miracle of raising Lazarus would not have seen the light of day. In the light of the resurrection, our earthly securities cease to be efficacious, in fact they can pose as impediments and barriers for us to attain grace and eternal life. Sometimes, we place large stones at the doorway of our hearts to protect ourselves from experiencing disappointment, rejection, and betrayal. The resurrection changes everything. Our preoccupation in securing our lives against danger, destruction, failure, illness and old age seems purposeless. Death is no longer the most feared reality, but something to be embraced because it is the doorway to the resurrection, the gateway to eternal life. Therefore, to roll the stone away is to cast aside all things that provide somewhat false securities, money, education, position, power, popularity, in order that we may place our trust in the promises and power of God. To roll away the stone would be to allow the light that comes from the dawning new day of the resurrection enter in to cast aside the shadows of fear and loneliness.

The second command Jesus gives is directed to the dead man: ‘Lazarus, come out!’ There is often a tendency to hide in the shadows, especially when we are ashamed of the things which we hope to conceal. We would often let things we are afraid off lie in the dark. I believe that many of the onlookers including the relatives of Lazarus weren’t sure what to expect when Jesus made this command. Would Lazarus emerge as a ghostly spectre or would he come out in the form of a decomposing zombie? The darkness of the tomb, therefore, offers us some security, although we are aware that only the dead prefer it to the light. Despite our fears, the darkness offers us a place of concealment for our sins and the things which we are ashamed off. But today, the message of Easter, the message of the resurrection is that you don’t have to stay in the tomb. Jesus is calling to you to come out … to see that it is God who has the power to change despair to hope and foolishness to wisdom.

The third command is again addressed to the people, ‘Unbind him, and let him go!’ It is here that we see the ultimate power of the resurrection. The resurrection frees and unbinds us from the shackles of sin and death. A few weeks ago, I spoke to you about the icon of the Harrowing of Hell. According to the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, Jesus descended into Hell, as we profess in the Apostles’ Creed, and broke down the gates of Hades which kept prisoners all those who have died. In the icon, he is seen lifting Adam and Eve out of their respective tombs by holding on to their wrist. Adam and Eve represents the whole of humanity who have fallen prisoners to Hades or Death. They have been waiting for this moment for centuries. The fact that Jesus holds them by their wrist emphasises the fact that they are unable to break free of their prison on their own. Only Christ can do so. It is not only death but also sin that shackles us and keeps us bound in a fashion as we were already dead. But today, we hear the command of Jesus, ‘Unbind him, and let him go!’ and know that death and sin no longer has a hold on us unless we willingly submit to them despite the gift of the resurrection.

My dear elect, today you will be celebrating the Third and the last of the Scrutinies. Today, the whole church prays with you as we have been praying in the past, that the stone which lies at the doors of your hearts be rolled away. Today, the Church of Christ calls you to emerge from the putrid tombs of sin and evil which has kept you trapped and imprisoned – ‘come forward’ – do not be afraid. Today, the Church in praying the third and the last of the exorcism prepares you to be freed of the shackles of sin and death so that you may be unbound and set free. This is the power of Christ’s resurrection. This is the gift of his new life. This is the mystery of Easter which we will all celebrate with you in another two weeks. Be certain of this, that you will not wait any longer than necessary. Jesus is coming to harrow hell and death, and no barrier or wall will keep him from you.

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