Raising Faith

All of Lent looks ahead to the profession of faith at Easter. Those to be baptized will make their profession for the first time and the baptized will renew theirs. That’s why the Church gives us Gospel passages about faith throughout Lent.

Over the past five weeks, we’ve seen the lessons. Jesus is transfigured before the Apostles to confirm in their minds what they already know by faith. In his patient conversation with the Samaritan woman, Jesus brings her to know him as the Christ: “I am he, the one speaking with you.” Likewise, he leads the man born blind from the darkness of ignorance to the light of faith. This arrangement of readings is to deepen our faith so that we can more strongly renew our baptismal promises at Easter.

Today we have the last lesson in faith before Holy Week. The account of the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11:1-45) puts before us Jesus’ greatest miracle, his last “sign” in John’s Gospel. From start to finish, it is a story about faith. And the hero of the scene is Martha, the anxious, bossy sister of contemplative, peaceful Mary. In Martha, we see ourselves both as we are and as we should be.

From the start, we sense that Jesus intends to stretch the faith of Martha and Mary. John the Evangelist tells us that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Then he states, as if it follows logically, “So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.” What explains the delay?

It’s not that our Lord is heartless or unconcerned about poor Lazarus. It’s rather that he allows this great sorrow to befall those he loves so as to draw out of them a greater act of faith. He allows the situation to proceed beyond what is mere human hope. He allows it to become hopeless. He delays his response to give them an opportunity to increase their faith.

Why doesn’t he answer? We can imagine Martha asking that question when Jesus doesn’t arrive immediately. It’s a question we ask when our prayers go seemingly unanswered. How long, O Lord? So, this passage gives us a lesson on the faith needed for intercessory prayer. We should not give up our prayers when we don’t see immediate results or when matters even seem to worsen. Our faith increases when we wait on the Lord. Or, better, when our Lord makes us wait, it’s to increase our faith.


Martha goes out to meet Jesus when he finally arrives. Her words give witness to an extraordinary trust. She leads with a profession of faith about the past (that also serves as a little scolding): “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She then immediately follows up with a profession of faith about what’s possible in the present: “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” As if to say, I trusted you then. . .and I still trust you. Not even death can break this trust. Despite Lazarus’s death and the seeming uselessness of her prayers, she perseveres in faith.

But Jesus desires a still stronger faith. He’s like a great coach getting even better performance out of his athletes. So, he puts it to Martha bluntly: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Then, “Do you believe this?”

That question is on par with his question to Peter at Caesarea Philippi: “But who do you say that I am?” In fact, Martha and Peter bear a striking resemblance: strong-willed, a little bossy, sometimes getting in their own way. . .but full of faith. You get the sense that Jesus had a similar affection for both. Not surprisingly, Martha – like Peter – responds boldly: “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

One more test remains, and it is the most severe. “Where have you laid him?” Jesus asks. He wants Martha’s faith to be exercised in the extreme – at the tomb, in the face of nothingness. Martha falters a little bit and tries to prevent the miracle: “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” So Jesus, again as he did with Peter, rebukes Martha: “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” Can you believe in the face of death? Will you trust only when it’s easiest, or in the darkest moments as well? Can you believe and trust in the most lifeless times?

At his word Martha relents. Her trust is rewarded; Lazarus is raised.

We might be satisfied with a superficial faith. But God isn’t. We might set limits on our faith – how strongly or how much we will trust. . .or in what situations. But God hasn’t set a limit. He keeps stretching us to increase our faith. Indeed, he’s not satisfied until our faith is whole, penetrating our entire lives, reaching even into the tomb. He even allows trials and sufferings, like the death of a loved one, to provide greater opportunities for faith. And if we persevere as she did, we will likewise be rewarded.


*Image: The Resurrection of Lazarus by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1896 [Musée d’Orsay, Paris]

Fr. Paul Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, where he serves as Episcopal Vicar for Clergy and Pastor of Saint James in Falls Church. He is the author of That Nothing May Be Lost: Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion and the editor of Sermons in Times of Crisis: Twelve Homilies to Stir Your Soul.