Most of us are experiencing unusual suffering right now, and the human person needs to understand what’s going on! On a human level, once we have clarity about how long this crisis will last and how to respond, we can go forward! On the deeper spiritual level, each of us needs to understand what’s going on with me and my problems.
[Listen to Fr. Justin’s homily here.]
Praise God, there are a lot of answers in today’s Gospel about Lazarus’ dying and then coming back to life. And here’s the principal answer: Jesus is allowing something to die in us, so that something can come to life. In December, I shared that the deepest fear of pastors is failure, and that’s mine. Now that our parish family is connecting online, I have this new fear of failing as your shepherd: I don’t know how to preach online, I want to do podcasts but don’t know if they’ll work, etc. I now understand that Jesus wants this deeply rooted fear in me to die. A lot of us have fears that need to die.
Other examples: On Ash Wednesday, we talked about how we all instinctively and almost subconsciously blame people for problems around us—that’s got to die, and we have to start taking more responsibility for our lives. Many of us would admit we’re lazy, spiritually coasting, aren’t maximizing our potential—God wants us to rise towards diligence, make a contribution. Finally, the world view of a lot of us is being challenged: What we view as important and necessary will not withstand this crisis.
On the one hand, understanding what Jesus is doing in our lives is very comforting; on the other, I know this can be cold comfort for people who are suffering. And each person’s suffering is different, so I don’t want to minimize anyone’s.
Let’s look at four elements in the text, and then we’ll finish with how to respond to what Jesus is doing in our lives.
1) Jesus’ love for us. The text says: “The sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill’” (Jn 11:3). Jesus would often stay at the house of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus while visiting Jerusalem, so it’s natural that He’d love them in a special way. But Lazarus is symbolic for all of us. This is our premise today: Jesus loves you and me. We’ll get to the conclusion in a minute. Every time we’re hurt, confused, angry, start with this premise and we’ll arrive at a good conclusion. However, be aware when your thoughts don’t start here: Notice you always end in a worse place.
2) Jesus’ action in our lives. “Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (Jn 11:5-6). Jesus loves us—this is our premise. The conclusion is that sometimes He will allow us to suffer.
Good parents sometimes allow their children to suffer so that they grow. You know how some parents hover over their children until they’re 32? These children never grow. Their parents do everything for them, and they can’t handle adversity. But who could live like this, going through life cowering at every competitor, running away from every problem? And kids know this. At a certain point, they say, “Let me do it myself. I can do it. Take off those training wheels and let me ride my bike!” If you watch the first Captain America movie and the 2012 movie Lincoln, both Steve Rogers and the son of the President need to join the army, they need to face death in order to save lives; they fight against people who dissuade them, because they need to grow and be adults. As hard as this is for parents, there is a time when we need to allow our kids to face danger for their own good.
When I was in New York, one of the priest-professors was verbally abusive to me and would order me around like a servant. I remember one guy said, “Justin, I don’t know how you do it. If I were you, I’d deck him [through Christ our Lord, of course].” Anyway, at the end of the year, I asked Fr. Giandurco if I could resign from working with this other priest, and he said, “Yes,” but said that I had to tell the priest myself. I didn’t want to face that other priest because I was so uncomfortable, but I had to, right? Fr. Giandurco knew I had to, also. And I did: I walked up to him and said, “Father, you’ve treated me like garbage for the past two years, so I’m resigning.” I had to face the monster in my life, which wasn’t him, but my fear of him. And I should have done it long before that. We all have to face our fears, problems, and dissatisfaction right now. Jesus will not take them away magically, but will help us overcome them.
3) The spiritual purpose of our sufferings. “When Jesus heard this, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it’” (Jn 11:4). Jesus says that Lazarus’ death and rising are for two reasons:
First, God the Father’s glory, which is when Jesus does the physical miracle. But what’s the point of the miracle? Jesus says, “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe” (Jn 11:15). The sufferings we’re enduring are supposed to strengthen our faith, our focus on God, because it’s taking away things on which we normally depend, but which can’t last.
Second, Lazarus’ death and rising lead to Jesus’ glorification, which occurs when He dies on the Cross. The raising of Lazarus angered the Pharisees and set in motion their plot to kill Him. But what’s so glorious about dying on the Cross? That’s when we see God’s full love for us. He will do anything to bring us home. He loves us no matter how much we reject Him.
Suffering reveals who a person is and their level of love. Remember what Viktor Frankl wrote? In the Nazi concentration camps, some of the prisoners acted like men, just trying to survive. Others acted like beasts by cooperating with the Nazis and selling out their own people, in order to get advantages. Yet, some rose above their suffering and acted like angels, going through the camps comforting others and giving away their last piece of bread. We have an opportunity now, with God’s grace, to rise above evil. People hurt us, we forgive. People are selfish, we give. People are down, we smile! We feel discouraged at home, we call someone to help them.
4) The fruit of Lazarus’ rising. The text doesn’t spend much time on this, what Lazarus’ body looked like, what he said and felt, etc. That’s because the main point of the miracle is faith: “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him” (Jn 11:45).
A man once told me how he had this group of friends whose company he enjoyed so much, in spite of the fact that these friends would always swear and get drunk. Though he loved them, they were having a bad influence on him for years. It was only when one of his friends crossed the line, making a comment that was so insulting, that it was over. The ending of the friendships was painful, but they had to die. And it led to amazing spiritual friendships, more life-giving relationships, with men at his parish.
Saints often become the exemplary figure of what their opposite problem used to be. St. Peter, who struggled with wavering, suffered and became the rock of the Church; St. Augustine struggled with lust, but went on to have such a pure heart for God; and St. Francis de Sales became the saint of gentleness, even though he had a bad temper (Fr. Joseph Esper, Saintly Solutions, 4). What’s your greatest problem? What’s the opposite virtue? There’s your path to holiness.
I’ve encountered many death experiences in my life: 1) A fundamental death experience of all my personal dreams was when I accepted God’s call to be celibate when I was 19; but the resurrection was so great, the freedom to love, the closeness to Jesus, such deep happiness that I’ve only once felt lonely in my priesthood. 2) In Rome, I got a degree in Canon Law; but my degree is really in suffering. I was so afraid of looking like a failure when I asked permission to leave. But it was the right thing to do and I had to let my worry about what other people thought die. Coming back to Vancouver was glorious. When my mom picked me up from the airport, I turned on the radio station. It was English, and they were playing YMCA, and I turned it up! I don’t even like that song, but it sounded so good. However, the real resurrection was that I came back so much stronger. I was less concerned about what people thought! I also let my naïveté die. I saw so many negative things in the Church there that I realized that I have to fight for what’s right. I want to become a saint and I don’t have time to waste.
So, how do we respond? Imitate St. Martha’s faith. Could we do the following, please? 1) Ask for help. 2) St. Martha knew Jesus could have saved her brother from death, but didn’t complain that He didn’t; 3) she knew that Jesus could still raise Lazarus, but didn’t expect a miracle right now, according to her timing. 4) When Jesus asked her if she believed that He is the Resurrection, meaning, to believe in Him is life, she said, “Yes!” Believe in Jesus’ love and plan for you.
Let’s say the virus and social distancing last for three more months. Where does God want us to be on July 1? He doesn’t just want us to go back to the way things were, He wants things to get better than before. God always goes forward.
At our parish, God has given us four elements to our parish vision: the Eucharist, sainthood, loving like Jesus, and proclaiming Him. In three months, this is one rallying cry: We want to be closer, holier, stronger, bolder. ‘Closer’ meaning to Jesus in the Eucharist, especially in the heart; ‘holier’ meaning like the saints; ‘stronger’ because the word ‘loving-er’ doesn’t exist, but also because growth in love requires courage; ‘bolder’ because evangelization always means more boldness.
When we reflect on these truths, we can say, “Lord, it’s still painful. But, I understand better now. With You, I can go forward.” Something has to die so that something can come to life.