5th Sunday in Lent, Year A

Christ the life-giver
(Readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45)
Introduction to Mass
Weíve got used the situation in our secular society, as we call it, where most people live without reference to God, without any great knowledge of God and without any profound personal experience of God. But from our standpoint as followers of the Son of God that situation is unnatural and impoverished. Every individual human life which is separated from God is lacking its most vital aspect.
A familiar biblical image, which expresses this reality, runs through all the readings this Sunday: life or death. Jesus is revealed as the giver of life, the way for humanity to pass from our state of spiritual death to sharing in eternal life, the life of God.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate this Mass we call to mind all the ways that we cling to the state of deathliness within us and we ask God, in Christís words, to unbind us and set us free.
To carry on with what I was trying to say at the start of Mass, we live at a time and in a culture where the poverty and inadequacy of unbelief is becoming more and more obvious. In our society we havenít exchanged Christian faith for some great new vision of human freedom and moral maturity. Weíve only replaced God with various golden calves instead Ė idols of our own making.
Our human need to worship, to reach beyond our own limitations to the infinite God, is deflected onto other things: lesser things which arenít worthy of worship. And the result Ė in Pope John Paulís phrase Ė is a whole ďculture of deathĒ. Like many other spiritually sensitive people the pope has noticed that thereís nothing life-giving, but rather something death-dealing, about our society, its typical values and the patterns of human relationship which it fosters.
As Christians we accept the message, handed down from the time of the first apostles, that Jesus Christ has revealed God to the human race as completely as God will ever be revealed to us here on earth: ďWhoever has seen me has seen the FatherĒ Jesus says later on in Johnís gospel. Christ has healed the breach between God and humanity, and re-opened the way for us to share Godís life as God always intended us to.
In that sense everything about Christ - his person, his message, his mission Ė gives life. He brings the dead back to life. Thatís St. Johnís point in this passage about the raising of Lazarus. Contact with Jesus, belief in him, discipleship of him, relationship with him, is life-giving.
Like the other miracles in Johnís gospel this one has a double meaning: an obvious "surface" meaning and a deeper symbolic meaning.
In the obvious sense, Lazarus is brought back to life physically, and thatís a good thing in itself. The gospels contain accounts of other instances where Jesus did the same. But on the symbolic level this is a story about the passage from spiritual death to life in God.
To turn to Christ, to ďbelieve and live inĒ Christ in St. Johnís phrase, means doing away with the seeds of death that are always within us, ready to take root and branch out, and being placed under the influence of Godís grace instead. St. John describes that as a process of resurrection: Christ raises us from a state of spiritual death and gives us life if Ė as John puts it here - we believe in him and live in him.
What are the seeds of death within us? What is the culture of death that they create?
The answer is that in our fallen and sinful state we all have an instinct to exalt ourselves by diminishing others, to serve our own interests by denying those of others, or pursue our own gain by depriving others. And when we follow that instinct weíre nourishing the predatory and death-dealing tendencies in our character and starving the life of the Spirit in us. Weíre closing ourselves off from God.
When we establish a relationship with Christ, these tendencies disappear Ė theyíre killed off and the seeds of divine life start to grow in us. We start to assume the image and likeness of God himself.
It isnít possible then Ė for example - to live in Christ and continue living according to the greedy, acquisitive attitudes fostered by our competitive consumer culture. Relationship with Christ frees us from the instincts which ďconsumerismĒ mobilises. Our attachment to things diminishes, our personal material wants become simplified and we become capable of giving up what we own for those who are more needy. It's more than enough to "possess" God.
It isnít possible to live in Christ and continue harbouring attitudes of violence towards others, physically or verbally. Relationship with Christ heals our aggressive and destructive instincts and our hankering for power over others and gives us the strength to endure violence without passing it on Ė as he did himself in an unsurpassable way by giving up his life.
One of the effects of Gods grace is that it diverts our anger into constructive channels, which donít involve belittling or damaging others. Jesus often showed anger, after all, but never the kind of violence rooted in a desire to dominate and diminish others.
It isnít possible to live in Christ and continue with a basically self-centred outlook on life, treating everyone and everything else as satellites orbiting around our ego as if itís the centre of the universe. Relationship with Christ removes the blindness involved in the self-centred mentality: the inability to see other people as persons rather than objects.
Again, the effect of Godís grace helps us get rid of all the false and imaginary needs which make us twist other people into serving us. It frees us from that over-riding preoccupation with ourselves, and all the energy which we previously put into getting what we want from others becomes a sort of life-giving energy, expended in love and care and service to others.
Those are some of the main areas, I would argue, where Ė to use the imagery of todayís readings - the conflict between spiritual life and death is played out in the case of every believer. But before finishing off I want to add something very briefly about how we go about welcoming Christís life-giving influence - because he never forces himself on anyone against their will.
First of all we need to pray. When we pray, Christ becomes present to us and active within us. When we pray regularly, the life of Christ becomes stronger within us and changes us. Praying to God is an activity which is simple but difficult Ė it goes against the grain somehow. Apart from the huge number of other activities and distractions that exist today, we often tend to persuade ourselves that some form of practical Christian activity is a different form of prayer or a legitimate substitute for prayer.
Personally, I think that the work of transformation which God carries out happens most effectively through our times of quiet prayer and not in the other things that we fill up our time with. Even a few minutes spent every day asking God in very plain language to be with us and to be active within us, changing our character and making us holy, wonít fail to have an effect over time. Then weíll be ready to approach Christian activism of some kind in the right spirit: genuine service of others rather than a subtle self-aggrandisement.
Another source of Christís life-giving influence, which was very important to St. John, is the sacraments: the rituals which take place in the context of the Church community, which are real meeting-points with Christ if we approach them with faith.
If our human sinfulness has left us with the seeds of death planted in us, maybe a good way to see the sacraments is to see them as the seeds of Godís life being planted in us instead. Itís good to reflect on the fact that when we were baptised and confirmed, and when we go to Confession and receive Christ in communion, in the Eucharist, these are all ways that the life of God takes root in us and grows in us, as long as we co-operate with them consciously.
For example, as a priest I have to try and think about the way that Godís life is planted in me through the sacrament of orders. When I was ordained Godís grace was made available to me in a particular way and itís up to me to spend the rest of my life co-operating with it and allowing it to act as a means of re-making me in Godís image and likeness.
But thatís true of couples who are joined in the sacrament of Christian marriage and itís true in different ways of all the sacraments. The sacraments are all life-giving, in St. Johnís sense, if we are open to the way that God works through them, and thatís something which, as Catholic Christians with our strong sense of sacramentality, we should especially try to appreciate.
So thatís more than enough. These are my reflections on this passage of Johnís gospel where Jesus is revealed as the ďresurrection and the lifeĒ, the way the leads us out of our state of spiritual death to life in God.