Updated: Apr 8
What if I start by asking you this question, “What does it mean to say that something is real?” We’ll be encountering this in the readings of today, particularly in the gospel. Lazarus is raised from the dead and the people wonder, “Can that be real?”
John presents us with a mosaic of strange and compelling incidents in the story of the raising of Lazarus from death. It presents different moving parts/cycles, which provide great depth for the readers: Jesus/disciples cycle; Jesus/Martha/Mary cycle, Jesus/people/witnesses cycle, and then Jesus/Lazarus cycle. Each of these cycles helps to explain the rationale of this story, namely, the power of Jesus to raise Lazarus from the dead points to the ultimate power of Jesus to rise from the dead after being crucified by the Pharisees and the chief priests.
For one thing, the evangelist makes this story uniquely captivating with historical facts. He also spices it with emotions, confusion, suspense, expectations, and surprises. Finally, there is an outstanding declaration depicted by faith expressions, revelations, and above all, a manifestation of divine authority, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man comes out, still bound in his burial cloth and chains. Jesus issues the command to untie him. John also highlights Jesus’ emotion, similar to the experience of Gethsemane. Jesus is perturbed by several incidents around Lazarus’ death to the point that he openly weeps. God weeps when his children are entangled by negative forces or shackled by the darkness of sin and death. Unless we are freed from those shackles, God weeps.
Margery Williams wrote a Children's storybook titled, The Velveteen Rabbit. Some parts of the story capture the encounter between the Rabbit and the old Skin Horse in such a pedagogic way:
"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"
"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
Miracle is real. It happens by the presence of God’s Spirit. It happens as God intends it. Miracle is God coming to us and freeing us. It is Christ stepping into our situations and taking over. Yes, “It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.”When God loves you, your miracle is real.
John’s gospel stresses the fact that Jesus loves Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha and will do anything for them. But that takes a process of faith and believing. For these sisters, it is just as the Skin Horse says to the Rabbit, “by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.” Martha and Mary state very clearly to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Isn’t that why Jesus waits for two days before answering the demand to go to Lazarus? To make it clear that once God steps into the situation, He takes charge. So, he said to the disciples, “I am glad that I was not there, that you may believe?” For Jesus, to die is to be asleep, because He has power over death.
Reading this passage as a priest, the experience of being invited to perform the Last Rites for a dying parishioner strikes me. A family member would usually call. It is a tense and somewhat scary atmosphere with several emotions in the room. My clock usually ticks faster than normal. I also try to wonder how the family would be feeling. On rare occasions, I arrived just after the sick person had passed. Truly, it would be the most uncomfortable encounter and I would struggle with picking out the right words to comfort the relatives. Some family members can get angry at the priest, “Why are you late? Why did you waste time?” are some of the questions that would come up. Obviously, it is like saying, “If you had been here,” my loved one would have received his/her sacrament of Anointing and Viaticum before dying.
Mary and Martha address Jesus as their spiritual leader. Both have hope in the resurrection. They would love it that Lazarus received the Last Rites since he was a believer in Jesus. Martha says to Jesus, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day,” perhaps not imagining him to be brought back to physical life after four days in the tomb. Also, when Jesus requests that the stone be taken away, Martha responds, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” At this point, Jesus reinforces his mission, to perform this miracle, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?”
In life experiences, we have had those “Lord, if you had been here” moments. And we wonder like the Velveteen Rabbit, "What is REAL?" We feel stretched. We are in wait. We lose balance. We feel our own stench, stinking, and disgusting lifestyles. And the Lord seems not to show up. Metaphorically, we die to ourselves wondering what it means to be real. Commotion, confusion, suspense, expectation, anxiety, and dryness might be the experience. The truth is that, like the Skin Horse maintains to the Rabbit, “When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real." When God loves you, He is willing to do miracles. When God loves you, it may take a long time, but he does not allow you to break. Your stench does not make sense to God. Your addictions mean nothing to him. His word from the prophet is, “I will put my spirit in you that you may live.”
Here are some questions for us to ponder upon: What is it that shackles you, that you struggle to free yourself from? Why do you think that the freedom you have so desired is not coming? How much of God’s spirit have you?
Maybe you can learn from Lazarus’ story. The Skin Horse's voice is like the voice of the prophet and the voice of wisdom that the Velveteen Rabbit needed at the time. These words can apply to our situation, in understanding the meaning of miracles, “once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand." Death almost renders Lazarus ugly, in the human sense. He stinks. He is shackled. He disappears. There's commotion and the people do not understand what Jesus is about to do. But Jesus steps in to declare, "Lazarus, come out." That is God's power and the voice of love freeing his loved one. Jesus repeats exactly these words to us, “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.”
Does that seem real to you? Let's say Jesus asks you these questions, Do you really believe this? Or how would you show your belief?
Readings: 1st- Ezk. 37:12-14; 2nd- Rom. 8:8-11; Gospel- Jn. 11:1-45