“Our friend,” Jesus called him (Jn 11:11).
That’s what Lazarus was; it’s why Jesus came to him, why he raised him from the dead. Because Lazarus was Jesus’ friend. Even the bystanders could see it on his face; they said to one another, “See how he loved him” (Jn 11:36). Love and friendship are at work underneath this and, in fact, every miracle. And really that’s the point — the simplest point, at least — that Lazarus is us, or should be. As goes Lazarus, so should we. We should be friends with Jesus just like he was. For that’s what this Christianity thing is all about: becoming God’s friend, finding life in that friendship, even eternal life.
|March 26 – Fifth Sunday of Lent
What Jesus did for Lazarus is just what he said he’d do. Earlier in John, he said, “Do not be amazed at this, because the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation” (Jn 5:28-29).
He was, of course, speaking generally here; Lazarus, however, is a sign, a miraculous signal of what is true for all believers. What happened to Lazarus was a glimpse of glory. He said so explicitly: “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (Jn 11:4). Just as at Cana, that miracle was a sign too, also revealing his glory (cf. Jn 2:11). By these signs, many came to believe; that was the point of these miracles. This too is one of the more beautiful points of the story, that God sometimes reveals his glory through the miracles he’s wrought in us, that God can change others through us, through our miraculously changed lives. So long, of course, as we’re God’s real friends.
To be God’s friend requires belief — right belief; in fact, orthodoxy. That’s the import of Jesus’ exchange with Martha. “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. Do you believe this?” Jesus challenges her. Eliciting, like Peter before her, her full-throated profession of faith, she answers, “Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world” (Jn 11:25-27).
The point here is that real friendship with God demands real belief. There is no such thing, for instance, as merely cultural, unbelieving Catholicism, no positivist or purely materialist Catholicism. If you don’t believe in the Gospel, you are no Catholic and no friend of God, nor will the glory Jesus talked about ever shine through you; it will neither change you or save you. This sounds hard, I get that. But this story, we should remember, takes place at a tomb. The matter and moral of the story is, indeed, life and death. That’s why we need to be clear about what friendship with God entails, because the stakes are high.
This is the sort of faith the Church wants us to rekindle these final days of Lent before entering the week of Christ’s passion. Ours is a primitive but modern faith; we remain enchanted believers in love and friendship and even miracles. Our faith should be no different from those first witnesses to Jesus’ signs. Our faith is purified, of course, by spiritual understanding. We know, for example, why Lazarus kept his burial clothes, and why, unlike Jesus, he didn’t neatly fold them up and leave them in the tomb (cf. Jn 11:44; 20:6-7). Lazarus would need them again; he would one day die physically, as all do.
We know that what Jesus gives us is eternal life, heaven; we know that that’s what this story is ultimately about. Just before they witness his own death, Jesus wants his believers to have real faith, real hope and real love. He wants his disciples to see his Passion in this more real way, this spiritual way. Jesus calls his death “glory” too, strangely it seems at first. But not if you’ve been seeing the signs as they were meant to be seen, not if you’ve been listening — with real faith. And again, all of this is about friendship. Friends understand, friends keep faith, and that’s all Jesus wants — friends who’ll go with him to the cross, who’ll not lose faith.
So, what about you? As we know, most who were there to see Lazarus raised scattered at Jesus’ arrest. Few made it all the way to see what happened on the cross. But what about us? Will we make it to Good Friday faithful friends of Jesus? Will we witness his death with understanding? Will we see in his death the revelation of God and the work of our redemption? We will see it as the eternal consummation of our friendship with him? These are the questions the Church gives us just before Holy Week. Questions only the real friends of God know how to answer.
Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books.