It has been a most surreal week for Fr Matteo and myself, as life at the parish has ground almost to a complete halt. It seems like each time we adjust to the new normal and put in place our best efforts at pastoral availability, the lines shift within a day or two and we need to start over again. I know many of you are deeply missing access to the sacraments and our parish churches, and your absence is felt just as much by us priests as we celebrate our daily Mass without our people physically present. I’m thankful that I have at least this small way of remaining connected to you, and I hope these letters provide you some consolation at this difficult time. Please let us know if you know of anyone who wants to receive these e-mail letters who isn’t already (the letters can also be found on our parish website: http://sfxarmadale.org.au/).
The Gospel reading for this Sunday the account of the raising of Lazarus. In Saint John’s Gospel this event takes place just before the Lord’s Passion, and this timing is not accidental. The raising of Lazarus is the immediate precursor to the series of events in which Jesus would definitively defeat death in the most counter-intuitive of ways – by succumbing to it.
When Jesus is told that Lazarus has died, he says, “Our friend Lazarus is resting, I am going to wake him.” Such words speak to the new world that Jesus is bringing into being. Within the confines of the old world—the old dispensation—death is ultimate, and its very finality gives it its power. However, by referring to it as “sleep,” Jesus is signalling that through God’s power and purpose, death is not ultimate – that it does not have the final word.
When Jesus first arrives at Bethany, he is told that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. This is to demonstrate that there is no mistake; the man is well and truly dead. But as his disciples would come to learn, our Lord’s power stretches beyond life and death as we know them, and it transcends both space and time.
Lazarus’ sister Martha comes out to meet Jesus and indicates her incipient belief in his identity and power: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died, but I know that, even now, whatever you ask of God, he will grant you.” Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again” and “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Coming to Lazarus’s tomb, Jesus is overcome with emotion and begins to weep – both for his friend who has died, and out of frustration at the lack of faith around him, even as he prepares to offer his own life for them. This image of Christ weeping is tremendously powerful, and it speaks to the way that God enters into the darkness and confusion and agony of our lives. Our Lord doesn’t blithely stand above our situation, but rather takes it on and feels it.
But then—like a warrior—Jesus approaches the seemingly unconquerable enemy of death, and directs his followers to “take the stone away.” Those who are stuck within the confines of the old dispensation protest, “Lord, by now he will smell.” They have no capacity to conceive that Jesus is able to counter the seeming finality of death.
But Jesus is undaunted. He commands, “Lazarus, here! Come out!” This is the voice, not simply of a hopeful human being, nor simply of a great religious figure; this is the voice of God who despises death and has dominion over it. And therefore, “The dead man came out.” Jesus then orders the onlookers to “unbind him, let him go free.” This command still echoes today. Just as he did with Lazarus, Jesus asks his followers today to assist him in his mission of freeing people from death and the ways of death.
The raising of Lazarus from the dead not only restores Lazarus to life, but he would also begin a new life on earth because of his relationship with Jesus. Something absolutely unique has happened to Lazarus, and it was no coincidence that it happened as the Lord was journeying to Jerusalem to face his own Passover from this life to new Life. The raising of Lazarus represents a kind of “final act” of Jesus before he walks the via Dolorosa. But we should ask ourselves, what does Lazarus’s new life and Jesus’ own Resurrection say to us today?
Lazarus’ human life is not permanent even after this divine intervention – he will eventually die again at the proper time. But the gift of new life he received in this remarkable miracle speaks to us of the fact that life is anything but ordinary for those who know Christ. It speaks to our own aspirations for Eternal Life with the Lord. We are definitively changed by our encounter with Jesus, the one who breaks through and overcomes every barrier, even the wall of death. In him resides the fullness of divinity, and therefore death had no power over him. The raising of Lazarus is a sign of his full dominion over mortal death, which is akin to sleep in the eyes of God.
The raising of Lazarus foretells the Jesus’ own Resurrection from the dead. But the new life won by the Lord on the Third Day would be no mere resuscitation of a dead body. The Resurrection of Christ is not the equivalent of the raising of Lazarus or the other two instances in the Gospels of Jesus raising people from death. Here’s how Pope Benedict XVI put it in his Jesus of Nazareth books (vol. 2, 244):
“Jesus’ Resurrection was about breaking out into an entirely new form of life, into a life that is no longer subject to the law of dying and becoming, but lies beyond it – a life that opens up a new dimension of human existence. Therefore the Resurrection of Jesus is not an isolated event that we could set aside as something limited to the past, but it constitutes an ‘evolutionary leap’… In Jesus’ Resurrection a new possibility of human existence is attained that affects everyone and that opens up a future—a new kind of future—for mankind”.
If we were able to gather for Mass this weekend, we would have gathered in a particular way with those preparing for initiation into the Church, and celebrated with them what’s known as the Third Scrutiny. Since the earliest days of the Church, today’s Gospel has been read on this occasion. In the special prayers used for those preparing for baptism, the Church teaches something of the significance of the new life we receive in Christian initiation. In one place she prays, “Free these elect from the death-dealing power of the spirit of evil, so that they may bear witness to their new life in the risen Christ.” And later, “by raising Lazarus from the dead you showed that you came that we might have life and have it more abundantly. Free from the grasp of death those who await your life-giving sacraments and deliver them from the spirit of corruption.”
We Christians are confronted by the choice to be tied up by sin or to be unbound by grace. The bodily death overcome by Jesus’ action in the person of Lazarus is not the only death the Lord wants to change in us. He’s battling with evil—with the spiritual death of sin—which drags us away from our happiness with God. Do we believe the Resurrection to be true? How are we going to be confronted by the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday? If we do believe, how will this affect our life? In what ways will we live life differently if we truly believe that our humanity is changed by Christ? And how will our faith influence any lingering doubts and confusion we might have about the Resurrection?
Our Lord once said, “unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.” (John 12:24) So as we prepare ourselves spiritually to enter into the sacred mysteries of Holy Week—even if in isolation from each other—may we commit ourselves to die to the life of sin, so that through the grace of his Resurrection, the Lord may yield in us a truly bountiful harvest of new life.
A few parish notices:
– In response to the government’s request that we minimise non-essential work, the parish office will be changing to school holiday hours as of next week. This means that the office will be open from 9am-12:30pm Monday to Friday until further notice. On Tuesdays and Fridays either Fr Matteo or myself will be in the office throughout opening hours, and will be available either for reconciliation or if there are other matters you wish to talk about (we’re also available at many other times, but feel free to visit without an appointment on Tuesdays or Fridays).
– A number of you have asked about how you can support the parish financially at this time. Feel free to pop into the office during the week to drop off envelopes or cash donations if you wish, and we’re also setting up two accounts (one for each collection) so you can donate online from home. These accounts should be ready in the coming days, and I’ll pass on the details in next week’s letter. I’ve also attached a letter from Caritas outlining options for giving to Project Compassion in the present situation.
– As I noted a few days ago, we’ve been asked to postpone baptisms for now except in the case of emergencies. If you happen to find yourself in such an emergency and a priest or deacon cannot be contacted, know that anyone is permitted to conduct an emergency baptism provided certain conditions are met. I’ve attached a sheet outlining how to perform an emergency baptism (this is something all Catholics should know anyway).
– Provided we don’t go into full lock-down mode, we’re planning to make blessed Palm Sunday palms and small bottles of holy water available to be picked up from outside the parish church from 11am onwards on Palm Sunday (5th of April). I’ll confirm this in next week’s letter.
– If you don’t have one already, I would encourage you to set up a little shrine or prayer corner in your house, as a focus for your prayer while the parish church is unavailable. You could adorn this space with a crucifix, holy images, candles, etc., and you could gather in this place to prayerfully reflect on the Sunday Mass readings, or to pray the rosary together after dinner, or to pray the Stations of the Cross on Fridays, or to take part in any number of other forms of Catholic devotion. In addition to praying for each other and for all those affected by the Coronavirus, please pray in a special way for our RCIA catechumens and candidates who have been preparing for several months to enter the Catholic Church this Easter, and who will now have to wait until the present situation passes.
You might also want to pray the special prayer to Mary recently offered by Pope Francis (slightly adapted):
O Mary, you always shine on our path as a sign of salvation and of hope. We entrust ourselves to you, Health of the Sick, who at the cross took part in Jesus’ pain, keeping your faith firm.
You, Salvation of Your People, know what we need, and we are sure you will provide so that, as in Cana of Galilee, we may return to joy and to feasting after this time of trial.
Help us, Mother of Divine Love, to conform to the will of the Father and to do as we are told by Jesus, who has taken upon himself our sufferings and carried our sorrows to lead us, through the cross, to the joy of the resurrection. Amen.
Under your protection, we seek refuge, Holy Mother of God. Do not disdain the entreaties of we who are in trial, but deliver us from every danger, O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen.
Finally, here are a few links:
A live-streamed Mass for the Fifth Sunday of Lent will again be celebrated by Archbishop Costelloe SDB on Sunday 29 March 2020 at 11.00am. The links are as follows and will be accessible from approximately 11.00am on Sunday 29 March 2020
Archdiocese of Perth Website – www.perthcatholic.org.au
Archdiocese of Perth Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/perthcatholic
Archdiocese of Perth YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/catholicarchdioceseofperth
Here’s a beautiful reflection offered by Pope Francis during his special “Urbi et Orbi” blessing from St Peter’s Square last night:
In addition to praying through the Sunday readings or watching a live-streamed Mass, you might want to consider praying the Sunday morning office each week (the official prayer of the Church prayed by all priests and religious): https://www.keepthelordsday.com/
In case anyone thinks the decision to suspend public Masses betrays a lack of faith, this article outlines the reasoning well:
Reflection: May this time without the Mass increase our hunger and love for God:
Here are some helpful Catholic resources for children: https://cathfamily.org/
Our parish toilet paper exchange is in the news!
Here’s a video I filmed for Catholic Youth Ministry, which includes material from my last two homilies: https://youtu.be/oaPZdPuKdKE
Lastly, I’ve attached a PDF resource with tips on managing anxiety in times of stress.