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The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Sunday, March 18, 2018


     One of the lesser-known works of the great American playwright, Eugene O'Neill, is a play called Lazarus Laughed.  It tells the story of the good friend of Jesus who briefly tasted death and saw it for what it was.  Ever after, Lazarus greets everyone he meets with these words that become something of a refrain throughout the play:

      Laugh with me!
     Death is dead!
     Fear is no more!
     There is only life!
     There is only laughter!

     The stage directions that follow indicate (and here I quote) that Lazarus "begins to laugh, softly at first, then full-throated - a laugh so full of joy in living, so devoid of all fear, that it is infectious with love."

     I like the image of the laughing Lazarus, but it's well to remember that the laughter of Lazarus was preceded by tears. His own, I would think, when he knew he was irreversibly in the grip of death; and certainly the tears of Martha and Mary, his loving sisters who doted on him, and who were devastated by his untimely death. And then there were the tears of Jesus. In what is surely the shortest but also one of the most revealing sentences in all the gospels, we were simply told that "Jesus wept."

     Laughter and tears.  Tears and laughter.  They are like waves that constantly wash up onto the shores of life.  And they are never very far apart, are they?  Certainly not in today's readings, and certainly not in life as we know it. Tears and laughter are as constant and predictable as death and life. They are the voice of death and life.

     Serving as a priest for many years has brought me close to the tears and laughter of a lot of people. And it's an awesome thing to be that close to the agony and the ecstasy of another human being. It’s something no priest ever takes it lightly.

     I will remember till the day I die, keeping vigil years ago with a young wife and mother at the bedside of her dying husband. He was way too young to be dying, but Agent Orange from the Vietnam War and the resultant leukemia were having their way, and we watched life slowly but steadily drain from him as we prayed through our tears the Church's beautiful prayers for the dying. He died one morning just after sun-up. Before sunset that same day, his wife gave birth to their second child, a beautiful little girl. Tears and laughter can come very close together in this mysterious life of ours, but I never saw them come any closer together than that. I found myself standing in silent wonder before the mystery of a God for whom life and death are intricately woven together and sometimes even spoken in the same breath.

     But we must not be too literal about life and death. Death has more than one meaning and so does life. The scriptures tell us that the story of the raising of Lazarus is more than a great miracle story that showed beyond any doubt that Jesus had power over death. It certainly did that, but it did even more because in John's Gospel the miracles of Jesus are more than wonders: they are signs, signs of something far deeper than physical - spiritual signs, signs of faith. Think of them as sacraments that point to things beyond themselves. In last Sunday's Gospel, when Jesus gave sight to the man born blind, his eyes began to see people and trees and colors, yes, but he gained other eyes, too - eyes of faith that opened up and began to see Jesus as Lord. "I do believe, Lord," he said, and he fell down in worship. And it was the same with the Samaritan woman. The water from Jacob's Well not only quenched her thirst, it led her to an encounter with Jesus, the living water.

     So what is the deeper level of the story of Lazarus?  I see it as a story, not just about the raising of the brother of Martha and Mary but the raising of every believer, including you and me. Lazarus represents believers on their way to faith, and he also represents people struggling to believe and sometimes finding it hard to believe.

     Each one of us should in one way or another be able to identify with Lazarus. Like him, we are the friends of Jesus. We are also the ones for whom Jesus weeps - and the ones to whom he speaks those commanding words, "Lazarus, come forth!"  That’s because there is something dead in each of us waiting to be brought back to life; there’s something asleep in each of us, longing to be awakened. The Lazarus story is our story, then, the story of every believer. And in a unique way, it is the story of our Elect preparing for Baptism and the Easter sacraments. They show us the way these days by their generous, wholehearted response to the workings of grace. We should watch them and learn. They have heard the command of Jesus, "Lazarus, come forth," and they have struggled to shake off their shrouds and winding sheets, eager to walk in freedom and in the light of day.

     My friends, are there tears in your life? Hurts that simply won't go away; painful memories that haunt you; limitations you can't overcome; things that just don't make sense? Is there death in your life: the recent death of a loved one, perhaps?  Your own approaching death?  Your fear of death?  Maybe so.  And there is certainly death in our world that can be so indifferent to the poor and so indulgent toward the rich, our world that seems to thrive on violence, killing off its best and its brightest. No doubt about it: we are surrounded by death.

     But that is not the whole story. There is Lazarus and his story which we need to hear. We really do. With Lazarus, we need to hear Jesus say, "Come forth!", and then we need to take our first uncertain steps into the light of day. And, you know, that takes courage because we can actually be comfortable in our graves. We can get used to drowning in our tears.

     But my friends, as much as tears are a part of our lives, we are still meant to laugh. Along with Lazarus, we are meant, to leave our tombs and to laugh.  To laugh because, in the end, there really is only life.  And God’s enduring love!

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

 

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