In the often-mindless wake of Vatican II, many tried mightily to tame the sting of death. We substituted the funereal black vestments of our Requiem Masses with multi-colored stoles. We banished the “Dies Irae” to the soothingly aesthetic precincts of the concert hall through an occasional performance of Mozart’s “Requiem” – stripped of its vital ecclesial context. We blithely proclaimed that we were “an Alleluia People,” eclipsing pleas for mercy and forgiveness by emotional celebrations of lives well-lived. And so we are woefully unprepared for our present plight.
As a culture, we have simultaneously cultivated death and denied death. The right to unrestricted abortion and the right to assisted suicide increasingly frame the American political agenda. At the same time, crowds of our young people, ignoring the imperative for “social distancing,” cavort on Florida beaches, forever thirsting for the fountain of youth. Black Friday consumption impoverishes our social imaginary as the gleaming Mall stakes its claim to being our culture’s secular Temple.
Until, suddenly and stealthily, like an insidious serpent, a virus has penetrated our defenses. And death denial has proved but a mirage. Consequently, not since the Second World War (for the diminishing few who can still remember) has the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, “The Raising of Lazarus,” had so direct, so overwhelming an impact. At least for those with “ears to hear.”
The late eminent theologian, Michael Buckley, S.J., always stressed in his writings the inseparable connection between theology and spirituality. In particular, he held that the mysteries of the life of Christ and the Christian’s defining relation to Jesus Christ must be foundational to theological reflection and serve as the heart of a distinctive Christian spirituality.
A fine example of his insightful integration of theology and spirituality is his short, but rich book, What Do You Seek? The Questions of Jesus as Challenge and Promise. Buckley structures the book by means of fourteen questions posed by Jesus in the Gospel of John. Each short chapter treats Jesus’ question in a way that reveals his true identity and the challenge to new life with which he confronts the hearer, both then and now. A challenge, which, if embraced in faith, also embodies transformative promise.
Buckley devotes chapter twelve to the passage of John’s Gospel read at the liturgy of the Fifth Sunday of this uniquely troubled Lent. Jesus encounters Martha in the very place where her brother Lazarus has been entombed for four days – entombed in the earth and in her heart. At his command, “take away the stone,” Martha recoils and objects. Jesus then speaks the challenge that is also stunning promise: “Did I not tell you that, if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
No facile answer can be – should be – forthcoming. No rushed and rote confession. For the context of the question is not death in the abstract, indefinitely postponed, but the present excruciating reality of the loss of a loved one, and the terrible recognition that there is already a stench. And Buckley comments: “Martha stands for every person who has ever committed himself or herself to Jesus, who has understood him as the meaning and anchor of life, only to have lost everything – in a graveyard of emptiness and of ruined expectations.”
And so Martha anticipates a host of believers throughout history. The disciples on the road to Emmaus who “had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” John of the Cross, betrayed by his brethren and cast into the dark night of a narrow prison cell. Thérèse of Lisieux with spirit-rending agony in her final illness. Teresa of Calcutta and her decades-long mourning the absence of the Beloved. Each experienced, to the marrow of their being, an abyss of emptiness and ruined expectations.
Each of them – and us – confronted with Jesus’ pressing challenge and promise: “Did I not tell you that, if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
The glory of God, not despite dereliction and loss, but through them. Which is to confess the most difficult and distinctive Christian confession: through the Cross. The Cross that leads beyond ruined expectations to the new reality of Christian hope: hope in the love and mercy and power of God who gives life to the dead. The Cross, which the Gospel of John insistently proclaims to be Jesus’ “hour” of glory. The Cross, spes unica: our sole hope.
John’s Gospel, so carefully crafted, distinguishes, in an almost systematic way, two Greek words for life: bios and zôé. The former is our biological life doomed to death. The second is the new, eternal life that Jesus offers. But the cost of accepting the offer is not less than everything.
This Lent has been and continues to be so very costly for so many. No spiritual placebo should be allowed to camouflage the cost. It will even render impossible a proper liturgical celebration of the Paschal Triduum. Yet even that sorrow pales before our suffering at the loss of so many dear ones.
But however solitary and sorrowful Easter morning may dawn, it cannot, must not silence the faith-inspired and hope-filled exultation: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” Zôé: true life, life eternal.
*Image: The Raising of Lazarus by Giotto (di Bondone), 1304-06 [Scrovegni Chapel, Padua]