10 Apr 2011
“Some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.” (John 11:46) (+)
The church’s liturgy at this time of the year helps us to better appreciate the mystery of all that we are remembering during these sacred days leading up to Easter. The church’s appearance today takes on the somber tones of the Passiontide. The images of Jesus and His companions are covered in shrouds throughout the Sanctuary. There’s a starkness to the church that can’t be overlooked. Even a child can notice and ask “why?”. And the answer is that Jesus was forced into seclusion. He was forced to flee from public notice. Jesus could sense that His death was imminent, but He had to make sure that it wasn’t premature. He had to prepare His disciples as best He could before events surrounding Him grew out of His control. He was no longer to be seen in public, and now His image is no longer seen among us here. Because of this, all vestiges of glory are stricken from the Mass. Along with the Gloria that has been absent throughout Lent, we now also remove all the doxologies, from my prayers with the acolytes before Mass, during the Offertory and at the liturgy’s conclusion. All of this connects us with the mystery of the Passion. We’re not only remembering what once happened to Jesus. We’re sharing in a truth that is timeless. What happened 2,000 years ago happens now. Jesus is still shunned and ridiculed. He is still forced to retreat into seclusion because the world doesn’t feel comfortable with His message or His example. This is the mystery of the Passion that surrounds us and that we must face and come to terms with if we are to truly participate in the joy and hope of Easter.
Passion Sunday confronts us with the unpleasant truth that Jesus was and is willfully rejected by us in the world. Take today’s Gospel as an example. Everyone has heard of the Lazarus story. We may not all know the details, but I think all of us can put together Lazarus and raised from the dead. It remains still today one of the outstanding miracles of Jesus’ ministry. It’s hard to forget a story about a man dead for four days who is then called out of the tomb by Jesus. It’s hard to erase the picture of Lazarus walking out of the tomb still bound by his burial clothes. Hear again the description as John tells the story: “The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth.” (11:44)
One of the details that we may not always remember about this story is that before Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the tomb, Jesus prays out loud to God in heaven. Jesus invokes the name of the heavenly Father, and Jesus comes right out and says that He does this “because of the crowd” and for the purpose that “they may believe that you sent me.” (11:42) Last weekend we read the story of Jesus’ cure of the man born blind. Jesus’ enemies agreed that a miracle had taken place, but they would not credit this act of power to God. They called Jesus a sinner. “‘We know that God spoke to Moses,’” they said, “‘but we do not know where this one is from.’” (Jn. 9:29) Now Jesus, in the name of the God in heaven, raises Lazarus from the dead. So now the question about Jesus’ origin and authority has been answered. The ones who doubted should now be reassured. Lazarus is standing before them still wrapped in his burial clothes. But how does today’s Gospel end? With the news that some of the witnesses go and report this greatest of miracles to the Pharisees; and as we will hear next Sunday, the news only hastens their decision to kill Jesus. This problem of miracles is what I’ll be discussing at our Lenten session on Wednesday evening in Conway for any who may be interested.
Believing can’t be forced on anyone. You can’t “WOW” somebody into faith. The New Testament has several warnings against being led astray by demonstrations of power. Even Jesus says: “‘Many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Messiah” and they will lead many astray.’ … False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.’” (Matt. 24:5, 24) Jesus warns us that miracles are not enough for a person to believe. Real faith, a sincere belief doesn’t come from not being able to explain some extraordinary event like a miracle. Instead, a living faith emerges not so much with awe, but with assent, that we do understand and that we do appreciate all that Christ does and teaches. When we understand Jesus’ proclamation, when we appreciate His compassion, when we are emotionally changed by our contemplation of His brutal crucifixion on our behalf, this is where faith is born and reborn. We understand and we agree and we can then believe.
This is why both at the time of Jesus and even now, faith is a choice, and it always will be. It has to be a choice to be real. It’s not something that can be compelled in any way whatsoever, whether by miracle, threats of hell or just going through the motions of looking like a religious person. Look at this Sanctuary. This is picture of faithlessness! This is what it looks like to the soul when we ignore God. This symbolism becomes real. But Lent is our chance to feel our faith, and maybe more so now than at any other time of the year. The liturgies of Lent, especially now as we have entered the Passiontide, and as we anticipate Holy Week, these make the distinction between past and present disappear. They erase the separation of 2,000 years. They connect us to the mystery of Jesus’ last days. Some who saw Lazarus emerge from the tomb praised God while others who saw the exact same thing planned for Jesus’ death. It’s not what we see with our physical eyes, but with our eyes of faith that makes the difference. It’s whether or not we choose to believe. And these shrouds make that choice as stark as possible. God doesn’t have to be a part of our lives, say the shrouds, but hopefully we choose to make Him one.
These are the days that can give new life to faith, can bring Jesus closer, can make us more aware of our need to believe in God, of the gift to believe in Christ. This is the time when the sacred message of a love so strong that even a suffering God makes sense, comes to life. Faith has to be chosen, and to choose means to know why. These days are the reason why. May they speak to all of us and may they change at least some of us. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo