There is a story of Tom asking his friend whom he had not met for many years, “How is your wife?” "Oh!" replied his friend. “She’s gone to heaven.” “Oh, I am sorry.” Then Tom realised that it was not the right thing so say, so he added, “I mean, I’m glad.” “Glad?” And then he realised that this answer was even worse. So, he finally said, “Well, I am surprised!”
If we are not clear about how death is related to heaven, then death can be quite messy.
Many years ago, I was in Changi prison; not as a prisoner, but as a visitor! I went there with an English Jesuit priest who wanted to visit it because he was a prisoner of war during World War II. We visited the section of the prison of people who were sentenced to death. I remember the superintendent saying that it is very clear that there at two types of prisoners. Those who had to be dragged to the gallows by force; and on the way, they would scream in terror, curse in anger and cry pitifully. These were the non-Christians.
But, as for Christians, especially those who have been reconciled with God, they would walk towards the gallows peacefully and calmly to face their death. The reason for such contrasting difference of facing death is obvious. As Christians we believe that when we repent of our sins, Jesus our Saviour and Lord will always forgive us as He is a Compassionate and forgiving God who Love’s us unconditionally and He will reconcile us with His Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. And when we find such a relationship with God, Jesus in today’s Gospel assures us that we will be with Him in heaven.
Today’s Gospel story illustrates this truth of our faith very well through a very human situation of dealing with the death. In this case it is the death of a loved one; the brother of Mary and Martha, and a very close friend of Jesus. The friends and relatives of Lazarus had been at the tomb to pay their last respects to him for the past four days, and they then hear of Jesus asking them to roll the tomb stone away so that Lazarus could come out. Martha who believed in Jesus immediately remarked, “But, Lord by now he will smell; this is the fourth day?” Jesus replied, “Have I not told you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So the people around rolled away the stone . . . perhaps with skepticism in their hearts, except for Martha and Mary who believed in what Jesus said.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, in today’s Gospel of St John, Jesus proclaimed to the Jews, and also to us here today, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
When Jesus says, “you will never die” we all know that He is not referring to our physical death, as all Christians have to die one day. We all know that Jesus is referring to the eternal life and happiness that awaits us if we only believe and live in His Ways. To all of these, I have no doubt every one of us here will respond resoundingly with, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are indeed the Resurrection and the Life.”
The problem is not so much that we do not believe in Jesus who is “The Resurrection and the Life,” but in the living out of what Jesus has taught us and how He expects us to live our daily life. In my reflection on today’s Gospel, it seems to me that one of the main reasons why we are not living our faith as fully as we ought to is perhaps we do not see that “Divine Love is stronger than our death.”
Very often we spend too much time, money and energy on trying to lengthen our life instead of focusing on loving God. I will not go into the details as you all know what I mean. As a result, we fear death more than we love God. Such fears and over concern about how and when we die robs us of our joy and gratitude of experiencing the immense love that God shows us daily.
When we fear death, we lose our focus in life; we forget how to love one another and push God into the background of our lives; life becomes tense and self-centered; and when we fall sick, we become frantic. But, if we learn to affirm how blessed we are to have a God who cares and loves us so much, and become grateful to Him, we do not have to worry of how and when we will die. Death will take care of itself and we can be sure that it would be most peaceful as the inmates in Changi prison and the many good people who live their faith to the full have shown us.
Human relationships too show us how love is stronger than death. Have we not experienced that when someone we love dies, whether it is our parents, spouse, child, sibling or friend, our love for the person continues to live on in our hearts and homes? Have we not experienced that when we love a person deeply we too will be so selfless that we are willing to give the person we love everything we have, including our lives? This is most easily found in a mother’s and father’s love for their young children. Most importantly, have we not experienced the deep love of God that we equally, if not even more deeply willing to live, serve and die for?
The saints are not pure spirits without a body. In many ways they are very much like you and me. They have as much if not more pains, trials and temptations than us. They surely have their fair share if not more tests of their faith than us. The radical difference between them and many of us and the skeptical crowd of today’s Gospel is that they were able to live their faith in Jesus fully and unconditionally, in spite of their pains and trials in their lives.
The breakdown of marriages, unemployment, terminal sicknesses, depression, anxieties, being victims of exploitation, abuse, the pains of the loss of bereavement, tragedies of calamities and the like may be devastating and traumatic, but whatever is happening to us in life, we each have to make the leap of faith and open our hearts to accept the gift of eternal life that Jesus is offering us every day. Jesus did not say, “I will be” but “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
But to experience eternal life here and now, one must believe firmly in Christ, and nurture it every day of our lives. This is because faith unites us to Jesus who is the Resurrection and the Life. The raising of Lazarus was not meant solely to console his sisters, but to serve as a revelation of the Truth that the gift of eternal life is real for those who embrace Him in the way they live their lives, and witness to His Truth, Love and Compassion in their daily living.
Life in Jesus is not some vague affirmation that He is our Lord and Saviour, but a firm choice and commitment to come out from our tomb of self-centeredness and self-sufficiency and emerge and immerse ourselves in the freedom of living a Christ-centered life of loving our neighbours as fully and wholeheartedly as Christ has shown us.
This is the last week in Lent and we are each challenged to open our hearts more fully to the graces that God is specifically offering us. We have the Penitential Services tomorrow night for our Parish community. On a personal level we are each have to take the responsibility to ensure that we don’t miss out on the abundant graces that God wants to give us this year.
To conclude, let us recall that the Christian prisoners were able to to their death in peace because they believed that Jesus is truly their Resurrection and Life; the thousands of Saints of our Church constantly remind us that Jesus’ gift of eternal happiness is real and will transform our lives if we only dare to emerge from our tomb of self-sufficiency and self-centeredness and live a more Christ-centered life. Finally, Mary and Martha in today’s Gospel, unlike the crowds too show us that if we dare to believe in Jesus’ power working in our daily lives, then our sorrows of life will turn into the joys of eternal happiness that begins here and now, within our hearts, in our daily living.
Do we want this to happen to us? Or do we prefer to mingle with the crowds that have the same mind as those at Lazarus’ tomb and be skeptical that Jesus will not offer us an eternal happiness that already begins here and now in our daily living?
Fr Philip Heng,S.J.
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