Br. Adam D. McCoy, OHC
All Saints Day - Year B - Thursday, November 1, 2012
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9
|Fra Angelico. The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs.|
About 1423-24. Tempera on wood. National Gallery, London.
From Wisdom: The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. Surely this is the traditional understanding of the reward awaiting those who keep the Law, the reward of those who are just and upright and loving. The reward of personal holiness, of keeping the Law and walking in the steps of God’s goodness. But there is a certain passivity to this holiness: it is in death that God’s approval is made certain. No hand can touch them now. They are safe. They are at peace.
From Revelation: I saw a new heaven and a new earth: the new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven adorned as a bride for her husband. Death, mourning, pain are no more, for the first things have passed away. This is active holiness, the victory of God, the goal of a religion concerned with the collective entirety of the human race, the joint hope of justice and vindication for all God’s elect. This apocalyptic vision is of a social order restored, and it is beautiful!
But at what a huge cost: the destruction of so many people, the unimaginably vivid images not only of harmony restored, but of the battle required to win that restoration. Revelation rightly raises questions about how the kingdom is to be restored. Are its destructive and bloody visions really congruent with the life, the ministry and the message of Jesus? Holiness is achieved, but may one wonder at the blood lust in this picture of holiness?
These are two clear, conventional images, traditional tableaus of the rewards and triumph of holiness. But they are not the only images.
Our gospel lesson today is neither passive nor violent, but combines both the individual and collective contexts of holiness in a new way: Two sisters grieving for their dead brother, calling in desperation on their friend to bring him back to them, who does so, revealing the power of God in mercy and pity, in the restoration of life lost.
Two things to notice, perhaps:
1) The personal, family, domestic atmosphere: Mary and Martha and Lazarus are Jesus’ friends. He stays with them when he visits Jerusalem. This is not anonymous, general. The dead man has a name, is their brother, is also Jesus’ friend. Jesus must know what his death will mean to these women, widows perhaps, or unmarried, left unprotected in their social context. This little group is a community which invites Jesus into its midst, more intimate than his fellowship with the disciples. It is, perhaps, a picture of the early church, meeting together in homes, calling Jesus into their midst.
2) Who are the saints in this picture, besides Jesus? It is an ordinary scene, even if filled with the drama of loss and death. This is not a souls-in-the-hand-of-God story, comforting Mary and Martha with the consolation that their brother is with God now. But neither is it the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven. It is stark and raw. Mary and Martha are portrayed in other places as getting on each others’ nerves, their home not a place of absolute tranquility. It is in this very real, very human context that Jesus brings Lazarus back from the dead, back to the gritty reality of human life as it is actually lived. If they are saints, they aren’t perfect yet.
So what might be the message for us here? What does this Gospel story say about saints, about holiness?
I would venture two thoughts:
1) The human, believing community is the place where the miracle of the renewal of life takes place. Not alone in solitary, individual righteousness, and not in spectacular, destructive glory. It is this little community which, powerless in itself, calls Jesus into their presence, asks for his help. And it is into this little community’s care that Jesus gives in trust the now-living Lazarus. Weak as it is, life can be restored when the community is centered on Jesus and trusts in his power, and to this community Jesus entrusts the care of this new life: unbind him and set him free. That is our charge as community: To seek new life in each other, to remove the winding sheets of death and set each other free.
2) The life given back to Lazarus is not a reward for his goodness. We know nothing about his character at all. Rather, it is the gift of God through Jesus Christ, given because Jesus loved him. Lazarus’ new life is from Christ, in Christ. If there is a theological point to this story – and isn’t there always a theological point to these stories? – it may be that somehow, in the community of the faithful, in the communion of saints, as it were, lives that are headed toward oblivion, the oblivion of death itself, and perhaps toward other kinds of oblivion as well. Those lives, can be called back, can be restored because, simply put, Jesus loves us. Think of how many great saints were headed down one track and suddenly turned to start a new path: Teresa of Avila, Ignatius Loyola, Francis of Assisi, Benedict, Martin of Tours, Pachomius, Anthony, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Becket, John Donne, George Herbert, and so many others, mostly unknown to us, but not unknown to God. The greatest of them is St. Paul himself, who describes what this experience was to him, and who gives us the words to describe the holiness which Christ gives us when he becomes our life: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:19-20)
May it be so with us as well.
May we be a community like the family of Lazarus, calling Jesus into our midst in our need, as our friend, asking him for the life the community cannot itself give but which can only come from God.
May we know that the life we receive is in the hands of God and under His protection.
May we know that the life we receive is the foretaste of the glory of the new heaven and the new earth, and that in that life we are called to be citizens of the new Jerusalem.
And most of all, may we know that the life we live is not our own life, lived on our own terms and for our own purposes, but the life of Christ who lives in us.