(The following is the homily that Father Thom Hennen gave during Mass on March 29 at KALA radio station on the St. Ambrose University Campus in Davenport. Father Hennen will celebrate Mass each Sunday at noon to be broadcast live by KALA.)
To be sure, we have never had a Lent like this. It has been said many times already and by many people, but it really is true: we are living in unprecedented times. The kind of both personal and worldwide imposed “penance” we are undergoing as a result of this illness, this global pandemic, is like nothing we have ever experienced before. And we do not know yet when it will end, how many will die, and what the world will look like on the other side of this. All the more now do we need to turn to Scripture for consolation and encouragement.
Each year on the Fifth Sunday of Lent we hear this passage from John’s Gospel about the raising of Lazarus. But I can tell you, I have never read this Gospel as I have read it in this past week. Could anything be more appropriate right now? Despite everything that is going on, in His providence, God still knows how and when to console us, as we hear this story that is at once about death and sadness and about life and joy.
In our sadness, in our isolation, in our fear and bewilderment, we can easily identify with both Martha and Mary, who after the death of their brother, Lazarus, say to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here….” We might wonder with Jesus’ disciples why He did not immediately go to visit Lazarus, at first news of his illness. Why did he delay and remain “two days in the place where he was?” Why not prevent this altogether?
In the same way, in the face of all that is happening in the world right now we might find ourselves saying, “Lord if you had been here, this would never have happened,” and wondering why He seems to have delayed in His response to our cries for help. You can be sure that those more belligerent atheists and enemies of religion are already thinking, if not already saying, “See. Where is your God? How come Jesus hasn’t stepped in to bring a swift end to all this?” Perhaps, if the timing were less awkward, less insensitive, they might press this argument further with people of faith everywhere.
We can and should rightly ask, “Why did this happen?” And there are different ways that we can approach this question. Scientifically, why did this happen? Most basically, because we live on planet earth, where we experience a whole host of perils: from various diseases to floods and droughts, earthquakes, fires, and violent storms.
In regard to this particular crisis, we can say (to the best of our knowledge at this point) that this happened because a virus in some animal adapted and evolved and found a convenient host in the most populous mammal on the planet, human beings. And that it has since spread from person to person, partly in our unknowing and partly in our carelessness. But to make the logical leap that because this happened, there is no God, is to try to answer a scientific question with a theological response, and is, I would add, utterly unscientific.
Of course, as people of faith, we have to be careful not to do the very same thing, albeit in a different way. There are, no doubt, already people of faith saying that this is either some kind of divine punishment for our “cleansing,” God’s wrath brought down upon us for our sinfulness, or perhaps, slightly less “doom and gloom,” that this is somehow “all a part of God’s plan.” But, brothers and sisters, such thinking and such statements play right into the hands of those who are already ready to pounce and say, “So, first your God is a ‘no show,’ then he is a capricious God, willing to ‘crack a few eggs to make an omelet?’ What rubbish!”
I for one (and I think I’m on pretty good theological footing here) do not believe what the world is experiencing now is somehow God’s punishment. And I believe it is too simple, too trite and maybe too insensitive to blithely say, “It’s all a part of God’s plan,” as though God actively willed this, even if He has permitted it. How do you tell a person dying from this, or an overworked healthcare worker, or a family member of someone who has died and is unable even to have a funeral for their loved one…how do you tell them that this is “all a part of God’s plan?”
Why precisely, philosophically, theologically, “cosmically,” this is happening is an excellent question, but one that that “this side of the veil” we may have to be content not to have answer to. We will let the scientists, medical professionals and public health experts get to the bottom of why and how scientifically this has all unfolded, in hopes that we may better treat this illness and prevent (to the degree that we can) future epidemics. And we will leave it to politicians, leaders of nations and global health organizations to answer the question about how and why this unfolded in the way it did when it comes to social and economic factors in what seems to have been a near global lack of preparedness, so that they can better serve their people and prevent this from happening again. But as people of faith, we will not likely find such “neat” answers, anymore that we will ever precisely know why Jesus delayed in going to Lazarus, why He didn’t just prevent his death in the first place, though He seems to offer some clue when he says that this “is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it,” and later after Lazarus’ death when He says that this is so “that you may believe.”
And so, allow me to return more directly to this passage. We may not know exactly why Jesus delayed in his going to Lazarus, Martha and Mary, but we do know that the He did not abandon them totally. After Lazarus’ death He goes to them. And particularly in His encounter with Mary, we have some of the tenderest passages of all the New Testament and a beautiful window into our Lord’s humanity. We read: “When Jesus saw [Mary] 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.”
Despite it all, Jesus is with them in their pain and sorrow. He feels with them, He weeps with them. Just so, in our world’s pain, in our world’s weeping right now, we can have every confidence that Jesus is with us, that He knows our pain and sorrow, that His own Sacred Heart is moved with pity for us, and that He weeps with us.
But we should also have confidence that, as in the case of Lazarus, “This illness is not to end in death.” First of all because, as Christians, we believe in the resurrection, of which Jesus is the first fruits. We believe, as Ezekiel prophesied in our first reading, that God has the power to “open [our] graves and have [us] rise from them,” that He will put His Spirit in us that we may live. We believe, to quote Saint Paul from our second reading this Sunday, that “If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in [us], the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to [our] mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in [us].”
Of course, we believe this in a “final” sense of things. We believe in eternal life. But also, right now, we need to believe, we need to have hope, that God can bring life from death, that God can heal and restore, and that when all of this has passed (as I pray it soon will) we will not simply go back to our old lives, but live life anew with Christ, in the Holy Spirit, and to the glory of God the Father. Now is not the time to abandon faith, to abandon hope, to abandon love, but to embrace them, to insist upon them all the more.
As Jesus wept for Lazarus and wept with Mary and Martha in their pain, so also now Jesus is with us and weeps for us and with us. As He once stood at the entrance of the tomb of His friend and prayed and called out in loud voice, “Lazarus, come out,” so now He stands at the entrance of this great world-tomb, which represents all death, fear, and sadness, and calls out with the same authority, “My children, my friends, my brothers and sisters, come out!”
Let us pray for each other and our world in these days, especially for the sick and dying and for those caring for them. Of course, let us also take every necessary precaution to try to prevent the spread of this disease, to lessen the loss of life and to buy time for scientists and medical personnel to treat the ill and develop the means to combat this virus. But above all, let us cling to faith, to hope and to love. May God bless you and your loved ones, our community and our world in this time.