Lent and the original-sin dump: Sunday reflection – HotAir

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 11:1–45:

Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill. So the sisters sent word to Jesus saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.” When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was. Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” He said this, and then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.” So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away. And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “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. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.” As soon as she heard this, she rose quickly and went to him. For Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still where Martha had met him. So when the Jews who were with her in the house comforting her saw Mary get up quickly and go out, they followed her, presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”

So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” And when he had said this, he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”

Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.

So yesterday I had an epiphany of sorts — at our local dump. No, really.

Until a couple of weeks ago, I had not been aware that our city offered an annual free hazardous household waste dump day. When we bought our house in central Texas two years ago, the leftover paint and finishes from a renovation completed ten years or so previously had been stacked in the garage. Usually, these types of material are helpful for a while for touch-ups and the like, but the age and the amount of them made the large collection useless. Unfortunately, as I found out, they’re also impossible to throw out. I couldn’t even find someone to pay to haul them off.

By chance, however, I found out about the annual disposal day and signed up. I loaded the material in the back of my SUV and drove over to the dump, expecting to do the labor to put the materials into whatever disposal containers were there. Instead, to my surprise, dozens of workers cheerfully unloaded all the materials being brought, and the work went quickly.

While sitting in line, briefly, today’s Gospel passage came to mind, as well as the season of Lent. For what is Lent but a reminder of the toxic waste of sin and its wages in death? And what does the story of Lazarus tell us about it?

Today’s first reading from Ezekiel 37 expresses the desire of the Lord for us to have avoided death at all, and His plan to restore us in righteousness:

Thus says the LORD God:
O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people! I will put my spirit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land; thus you shall know that I am the LORD. I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.

I will put my spirit in you that you may live. God made us for eternal life in His spirit, but also made us to choose that for ourselves. We chose rebellion and sin in the form of Adam and Eve, and we continue to choose that in our own lives as well. Those choices of materiality create the conditions for death as the products and consequences of our sins build up in our lives. Those become the toxic waste of the soul in a sense, and we become so blinded by our willfulness that we become frozen in it.

But the Lord is the God of life, not death, with “mercy and fullness of redemption,” as the responsorial psalm today instructs us. That eventually brings us to Christ’s Passion, but first we come to Lazarus, the friend of Jesus who dies while Jesus and the disciples are away from Bethany. Jesus goes to Bethany four days after Lazarus was entombed, and He weeps once He meets Mary and Martha, and again at the tomb.

Jesus knows He will raise Lazarus as His final sign, so why does He weep? He weeps for us, those who will die, and especially those who may die while blinded. The Christ came to conquer death and to end its grip on the sons and daughters of the Father, and to remind us who we truly are. Jesus makes this explicitly clear when He tells the disciples that He was glad not to have been there and stopped this process, because they — and we — really needed to see what Jesus would do next.

Jesus calls Lazarus out of his tomb, but He is also calling to us to “come forth” from the tombs of sin. We bury ourselves in it to the point where it can muffle out any reminder of virtue and faith. It is this toxic waste that prevents us from embracing Christ and the Holy Spirit.

This brings us to Lent and our efforts to start chipping away at the tomb of sinful materiality that cocoons our spiritual lives. It is only in this effort that we can hear the Word of God calling us back to Him. When Jesus called Lazarus, his family and friends had already rolled back the stone from the tomb’s entrance so that Jesus’ voice reached into the tomb. So who does that for us?

This was what struck me while waiting in the line at the dump and then going through the “purge” myself: how many hands were there to help me. We have the same assistance on hand if we call upon it in our spiritual salvation, too. We have priests in the church ready and eager to help us confess our sins and seek absolution; we also have the communion of saints and the angels praying for our return. They want to rescue us, not judge us or show resentment for the necessity of praying for our redemption.

All of these live in the spirit of the living God — truly themselves, but also truly partakers in Trinitarian divinity as well. They are beings of life who want to see the end of death, for the Lord’s sake as well as ours. They will lift that load to assist us and will cheer when we awaken to the Word. And if we fall asleep to it again, they will help again to rescue us from the toxic waste of that sinfulness as well.

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Lent reminds us of our choice between life and death, and the disciplines of this season represent far more than a six-week sacrifice. It trains us for the purgation of this life and the purgation to come when we meet the Lord in our next life. And it should remind us of the love that will carry us through both.

The front-page image is an illustration of John 11 in the Codex Purpureus Rossanensis (“Rossano Gospels”), circa 6th century, in a collection at the Maria Santissima cathedral in Rossano, Calabria, Italy. Via Wikimedia Commons. 

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  

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