Friday, March 15, 2013

Victory over Death

Fifth Sunday of Lent
(With Scrutinies, Year A Gospel)

For three weeks in a row we have heard remarkable stories of healing and faith from the Gospel of St. John, each of which is related to the Sacrament of Baptism. Two weeks ago we heard Jesus refer to himself as the “Living Water” in the story of the Samaritan Woman at the Well. Water quenched the thirst of the woman, as Jesus the Living Water drenched her parched soul, a soul yearning for love. Last Sunday we heard Jesus say that he is the “Light of the World” in the story of the Cure of the Man Born Blind. Light touched the blind man, as the Word of God enlightened his spirit along with the gift of physical sight, and he believed in Jesus. Today Jesus said that he is the “Resurrection and the Life”. Today, he comes to give life and defeat death.

In a very special way each of these stories invites us to look more profoundly into the mystery of the Sacrament of Baptism. The water of baptism becomes for us “living water” that refreshes our spirit by cleansing us of our sins; the light we receive in Baptism, symbolised in the candle, enlightens our path to follow Christ, the Light of the World; and as we learn from the Gospel today, in Baptism we die to our sins and rise again to a new and glorified life in the Lord Jesus, the “Resurrection and the Life”. Although, it may be easier to imagine the obvious connection between water, light and life with the sacrament of baptism, few Catholics would associate this sacrament with death. But remember what St Paul wrote (Rom 6:4): “when we were baptised we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life.”

Death is a common topic of speculation and anxiety. Death is frightening to people for many reasons: they do not know what to expect from death, they fear the punishment of gods, they dread not accomplishing certain things in life, etc. We instinctively kick against it and try to push it back. Given the depressing nature of death, most deal with it by ignoring it. When faced with it, some choose to deny it. Given its sheer influence and power, others choose to glorify it. Almost everyone tries to postpone it. Increasingly, many deal with death by euphemising it, a type of self-hypnosis. These people, since they can’t avoid death, attempt to declaw it, by describing everyone who has died as “going to a better place” and “at peace now.” But once in a while, our serenity is disturbed by a death of someone we know and we are once again reminded of our mortality. It’s as if the dead person is sending a message beyond the grave addressed directly to each one of us, “None of us are going to get out of here alive.”

In raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus sounded the battle horn and threw the challenge to the forces of death, announcing the impending victory over death by his own death and resurrection. Christ executes a gaol break that is unprecedented. Everyone knew that no one is capable of getting out from this maximum security prison. Death is the human problem that man can never conquer by his own efforts.  In spite of much advancement in science and medicine, man is no closer to finding the cure for death or the illusive elixir of immortality. Death’s hold over man was complete and had gone unchallenged since the time of Adam. But the good news of Easter, what Easter is really all about, is that Jesus Christ has done what we could never do. It would take one who did not fear death, one who could not be held captive by any human or spiritual prison, one who is sinless, deathless, one who is Life itself to accomplish the humanly impossible. By his resurrection Christ has conquered death.Thus Pope Emeritus Benedict speaks of the “novelty that breaks and goes beyond every barrier ... Christ destroys the wall of death, in him there dwells the fullness of God, who is life, eternal life.”

But note that Lazarus' human life is not permanent even after divine intervention for he will definitively die at the proper time. The crucial question would be whether this second death is a mere transition to life, eternal life, or it signifies eternal death? The Christian message reminds us that what is to be feared more than physical death itself is spiritual death, the eternal death of the soul, as expressed in the Church’s doctrine of hell. Thus, what every Christian or person should aspire for is not just life, a long life, a quality-filled life, a happy life. The truth is that no matter how long we live, no matter what happiness may come our way in this life, we will all perish one day. Our goal should lie beyond this life, to the new life, the perfected life, the blessed life promised by Christ to those who believe in him. “If anyone believes in me, even though he dies, he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me, will never die.”

The raising of Lazarus foretells the resurrection of the dead of Jesus after the cross. But the Lord's new life on the Third Day is no mere resuscitation of a dead body. Jesus' resurrection is not equivalent of the raising of Lazarus. It is an entirely ‘new’ thing. As Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote, "Jesus' Resurrection was about breaking out into an entirely new form of life, into a life that is no longer subject to the law of dying and becoming, but lies beyond it - a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence. Therefore the Resurrection of Jesus is not an isolated event that we could set aside as something limited to the past, but it constitutes an 'evolutionary leap' ".

We are confronted by the choice to be tied up by sin or to be untied by grace. The bodily death overcome by Jesus' action in Lazarus is not the only death the Lord wants to change in us. He's battling with evil, with spiritual death, sin, which drags us away from our happiness with the Lord. Through his resurrection, Christ has already dealt a mortal wound to death. On the Last Day, death will die. But some of us continue to live lives in ignorance of this. Some of us continue to live as if we are defeated by death rather than victorious in Christ. Thus, the question by Christ to Martha, Lazarus’ sister and addressed to each of you today is critical, “Do you believe this?” I hope and pray that each of us will echo without hesitation the reply of faith that comes from the lips of Martha, “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world.” Through baptism we are already united to Christ’s resurrection, we are already united to his victory over death. As we pray for the Elect after this, let us also pray that God may “free (us) from the death dealing power of the spirit of evil, so that (we) may bear witness to (the) new life in the Risen Christ ... so that we might have life and have it more abundantly.”

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