Fifth Sunday of Lent A
Four or five years ago, when my niece was quite young, she was headed back to the pew with my sister-in-law who had just received Holy Communion. My niece paused in front of the side altar, above which is a larger-than-life crucifix. She looked up at the Lord’s face, saw his eyes closed tight, and called out loudly, “Jesus, wake up!”
Just a couple of weeks before Easter, when we’ll reflect on the Lord’s own three day rest in the tomb, we hear the story of how he woke his friend, Lazarus, from the sleep of death. But while the miracle is the raising of Lazarus, the account focuses most of its attention on his two sisters—Martha and Mary—and their interactions with Jesus.
We know these two women from elsewhere in the gospels—specifically, the story told by Luke of the day they welcomed Jesus as a guest in their home (10:38-42). Some of the same personality traits that came through when they served as hostesses to Jesus also come through here as with him they mourn their brother. Remarkably, both Martha and Mary say they very same thing—word-for-word—to Jesus when the see him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But they sure seem to mean it in very different ways…
Martha is the first to speak to Jesus. When she hears he’s approaching Bethany, she springs into action, running out to meet him even before he steps into town. You can practically see her shaking him by the shoulders, “If only you’d been here, we all know that Lazarus wouldn’t have died. Where have you been? What have you been waiting for? We can’t waste another moment—it’s been four days already! So here’s what you should do…” Despite her fervent emotion, Martha’s conversation with Jesus continues on in rather stilted, formal fashion. Her responses to the Lord sound an awful lot like ones she's memorized out of the Catechism: “Of course the dead will rise, on the last day—everybody knows that. Yes, I do believe that you are (a) the Christ, (b) the Son of God, (c) the one who is coming into the world…just like it said on—what was it?—page 57, I think.”
She gives the distinct impression that, if she just knows the right stuff, says the right words, and does the right things, then God will of course do precisely what she wants.
Mary’s approach is quite different, to say the least. To start, Mary begins by staying at home. No—she’s not being standoffish, nor crippled by her grief. When Martha returns to tell her that Jesus is asking for her, Mary gets up and goes quickly to greet him. And what does she do when she sees him? She doesn’t grab him by the shoulders…but falls at his feet: “If you had only been here, Lord, Lazarus would not have died. But you weren’t here. And, while I don’t begin to understand it, I trust that what has come to pass is within God’s plan—just as I trust that whatever you are about to do now will be for the best. You know how we love you! And we know how you love us…” No stiff back-and-forth follows. Jesus is deeply moved, weeps with her, and asks, “Where have you laid him?”
Mary still mourns in the face of death, but she doesn’t feel the need to try and take charge of the situation…because she believes, even if it’s not quite obvious how, that God has everything well under control.
In effect, Martha says, “Jesus, wake up!” while Mary says, “Jesus, if you please, wake him up, wake me up, wake us all up…”
The difference between these two sisters is more than a study in family dynamics. It presents us with the two basic ways that we Christians approach our faith in Jesus.
Some of us get the idea that, at Baptism, we didn’t so much become disciples of the Lord as his “senior advisors”: “It’s clear that you need a little guidance in this matter, so let me tell you how things ought to be done…” If we think, say, and do things by the rules, then God simply has to give us what we ask for…right?
But then there are those who don’t approach the Lord as if negotiating a business transaction; they do so, rather, as relating to a dear, dear friend. They put their full confidence in God, believing he’s always got their best interests at heart—and that he knows what’s best far better than they ever could. Instead of giving the Lord direction, they seek it from him.
Which are you?
While most of us still have our Martha moments, and many of us are striving to be more and more like Mary, we are all of us, in the end, most like Lazarus. We are all dead in our sins, bound tightly by the burial bands of our transgressions, lying in wait for someone to set us free and raise us to life again.
Since the Church’s earliest days, this season leading up to Easter has been one marked by repentance. Now is the perfect time to ask the Lord to resurrect all that has died within us.
This Thursday-Friday, we are again observing, “The Light is ON for You,” with confessions available a couple of hours Thursday evening and all day Friday, and Eucharistic adoration straight through the night. (The full schedule can be found in your bulletin, along with a brief guide to confession and an examination of conscience.) Like Martha, throw yourself down at the feet of Jesus, who is really and truly present before you in the Most Blessed Sacrament. Speak frankly with him—not simply in words you memorized as a child, but in ones that come right from the heart. Renew your trust in his love and mercy, which have the power to restore you to life. Then roll away the stone, and expose your death-dealing sins to him in the Sacrament of Penance. It’s probably been more than four days—maybe more like 4 or 14 or 40 years—so there’s likely to be a stench. Don’t worry—Jesus is not concerned at all. Just listen as he calls to you, “Come out! Don’t stay asleep in your sins! Don’t remain dead in that tomb! Come out to a new life!”
Jesus, wake us up!