“The sisters of Lazarus sent word to Jesus to inform him, ‘Lord, the one you love is sick.” John 11, 1-45.
“We are an Easter people, living in a Good Friday world.” This reminder comes from Anne Lamont, the San Francisco writer, and author of “Traveling Mercies.”
Yes, we’re living in an imperfect world, and our aim this Lent is to realize more fully that by following Jesus we are entering into a friendship with him, and the promise of eternal life.
Today, I want to speak about the “invisible kingdom of the heart.” After all, faith in Jesus implies an inner sympathy with him: this man must be “from above.”
As we read in today’s gospel, death does not take a holiday, even for Martha and Mary, who send for Jesus, but he’s “out of town.” And only after two days, does he decide to return to Bethany and the home of his friend Lazarus.
Let’s talk about this scene with the sorrow and grief that do not go away and how to best deal with such circumstances.
When I was a youngster and an altar boy, I served funeral Masses at my home parish, even at an unusually young age. I recall that at Church, we would pray for the grace of a “happy death.” Back then, I wondered what was so happy about it. What does a “happy death” mean?
Much later on, I came to understand that we were praying about those circumstances of a sudden, unexpected, or violent death. Fair enough, as an adult and as a priest, I’ve had direct experiences of families who had to contend with the news of shocking accidents, death of on a battlefield, or cases of violence. A happy death is one surrounded by loved ones, whose embrace speaks of the prayerful presence of the Lord now and into eternity.
So even Martha and Mary are disappointed in Jesus that he’s not on call in their hometown of Bethany to help them in their hour of grief. He comes a few days later when Lazarus had already died.
You should know this is a subtle way in which the gospel writer tells us that Lazarus was indeed dead. Also, of the four gospel writers, only John reports about this episode. It’s a few passages away from Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and his death on the cross.
However, this dialogue with Martha and Mary remains a climax moment for the gospel of John, with these powerful words: “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, though he should die, will come to life; and whoever believes in me, though he should die, will come to life; and whoever is alive and believes in me will never die.”
Clearly, this great miracle of the raising of Lazarus recalls this line from scripture scholar Father George Smiga: “Miracles are not about wonders. They are signs that can lead us to faith, and if we choose to believe, to life eternal.”
In John’s gospel, the great sin is unbelief and knowing that there is life even out of death. That’s why Jesus identifies himself with words: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. I have come that you may have life, and you might live it more abundantly, I am the way to the Father.”
So this eternal life doesn’t begin after we die. Instead, for Jesus, eternal life starts no – at our baptism and doing the Father’s work of mercy and service to those in need while in the world and building the Kingdom of God.
So what is the gospel writer doing? For the past two weeks, John is setting up a series of conversations or dialogues of Jesus with the “woman at the well,” and last week, the healing of the blind man. And now we listen to Martha and Mary at the raising of their brother Lazarus.
The intent is to reach out to those so-called “religiously unaffiliated,” or those who have a hunger to hear the word of God, and those in deep sorrow that they too may enjoy the healing waters of “new life,” restored by Christ.
This is why we take time today to read these bible narratives because they are especially powerful for those who are about to receive the Easter sacraments.
How do you explain this “invisible kingdom of the heart” to young people, like yourselves, or to anyone in grief at the loss of a son, daughter, or parent?
Here’s an example for the “young at heart.”
James M. Barrie, the playwright and author of “Peter Pan,” bequeathed the copyright and its vast fortune for his most famous literary creation to London’s Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital.
Barrie had become a foster uncle to four young boys whose parents had died, leaving them in great sorrow and personal bereavement.
How you explain sorrow and loss to young people becomes the subject of the film “Finding Neverland” (2004) with Johnny Depp and the current Broadway musical adaptation, which starred Matthew Morrison.
In the song “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground,” Morrison plays James Barrie, and alongside Aiden Gemme as Peter. Together they deal with this grief, asking us to consider a higher realm, and an “invisible kingdom of the heart” where the “lost boys” might fly, and to make this inner life possible. The British singer and composer Gary Barlow wrote this fantastic song.
Here’s an afterword for the adults among us.
I have friends of mine, Jerry and Marilyn Burke, who lost their young daughter and only child Julia, in a sudden, unexpected car accident in Berkeley in 1998.
She was a high academic student in her senior year of high school and headed to a promising future. As a priest, I had the task of being with the Burkes and her classmates that long night in Oakland’s Highland Hospital. Julia was one of my altar servers at Saint Monica’s Church in Moraga.
Julia’s unbounded optimism for the debate team, crew, and learning gave Gerry and Marilyn the idea to honor Julia’s memory with a foundation. Today this foundation in her name supports those activities, and social causes that Julia would be doing had she lived.
It’s a fantastic tribute to the many of Julia’s young friends she knew in high school and the many others that have benefited from the generous support of the Julia Burke Foundation.
It’s also the “amazing faith” of a mom and dad who in loss — know that “miracles are not about wonders. They are signs that can lead us to faith, and if we choose to believe, to eternal life.”
Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.
Here is a link to the Julia Burke Foundation: