The events of these past two weeks have been unusual and unprecedented. The social changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic have had surprising effects in the lives of everyone. It has certainly been an interesting (not necessarily in a good way) period of time for me.
The first time I recorded a daily Mass for the website, I learned that there is quite an echo in the Day Chapel. In order to improve the sound quality of the recording, I moved to the Sacristy for the rest of the week. Mass for Tuesday of this week didn’t start out well. I had the microphone facing in the wrong direction for the Reader, then a large number of bees invaded the Sacristy. The buzzing increased steadily in volume during the Mass. I wondered what would happen next; twenty-four hours later I found out: the County issued a “Stay at home” order. As a result, I had to reorganize the Sunday Mass video in order to reduce the number of people in the church building.
Just at the time I was beginning to think of myself as more of a recording studio technician than a priest, I received an email from a friend of mine. The email reminded me of the things that drew me to priesthood so many years ago as well as the things that have sustained me during those years. Those memories provided me a great deal of encouragement in a challenging situation that changes daily.
It is necessary, on a regular basis, to reflect on the path along which God has led us. Doing so keeps faith fresh and alive. The rather complicated story in today’s Gospel is an example of reflection on past encounters with God.
It is important to keep in mind that each of the four Gospel authors wrote to particular church congregations. The four Gospels tell the story of the life of those congregations as much as they tell the story of the life of Jesus. The story of the resuscitation of Lazarus was a response to some significant concerns among the members of John the Evangelist’s congregation.
One might wonder why Jesus resuscitated Lazarus. After all, Lazarus was just going to die again, at a later time. It’s bad enough to have to die; dying twice is more than anyone should have to bear. The death and resuscitation of Lazarus was John the Evangelist’s way of responding to the members of his congregation who had begun to worry about their loved ones who had died.
Jesus’ Apostles, the wider group of disciples, and the converts whom they evangelized expected that Jesus’ promise to return in glory would be fulfilled during their lifetime. When Christians began to grow old and die, it caused quite a bit of consternation. We see reflections of this throughout the Christian Scriptures. That first generation of believers worried about what would happen to those who died before Jesus’ return. Would they be excluded from his promise of resurrection? Would they be relegated to being second-class citizens in God’s Kingdom?
Then, of course, the survivors began to wonder about themselves. They began to ask questions like, “What will happen to us?” and “We’ve put our faith in the Risen Jesus, now what?” When it became apparent that the Lord’s return might be delayed indefinitely, these sorts of questions had to be addressed.
In the story, Martha said, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would never have died.” (Jn. 11:21) John the Evangelist used Martha’s complaint as a means of expressing his congregation’s concern for their fellow members who had died. Jesus’ response to Martha provided a perfect remedy for the congregation’s concerns. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.” (Jn 11:25) That is to say, that the eternal life Jesus gives his followers does not eliminate physical death; instead, faith in Jesus transcends sin and death.
Last Sunday, I mentioned that Thomas Aquinas coined the term “Supernatural” to describe the new, eternal destiny of resurrection made possible to human nature because of Jesus’ death. Today, the word “supernatural” is most often used to refer to the occult; this makes no sense. Thomas’ definition of “supernatural” is explained by the word itself; the word means “above (human) nature.”
The promise of forgiveness and resurrection that we receive in Baptism is a promise of being lifted above our human nature, given a new and eternal destiny, and perfected to a degree that is not possible for human nature in the absence of God’s help.
The answer to our questions about human nature, mortality, and our destiny is the same answer that Jesus gave to Martha. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.” (Jn 11:25) Our salvation is not something that is the product of this universe; it is a destiny that unaided human nature is incapable of producing or even imagining. Our hope, then, is not hope for salvation in this life or from this world; this life will end for all of us, and no one will escape that finite destiny.
Because Jesus rose from the dead, and promises us bodily resurrection, we value this world and our lives, but we do so conditionally. The value we put on the goodness of life and creation is limited in just the same way that life and creation are limited. Our hope is not limited or conditional or partial because our hope is founded on an eternal destiny promised to those who remain faithful to Jesus.
“What will happen to us? We’ve put our faith in the Risen Jesus, now what?” We have limited control over what happens to us in this life. We do, however, have complete control over how we choose to live. The teachings of Jesus tell us to value profoundly the goodness of life and the created world, but to place our hope in Goodness that lasts forever.