Someone said to me in the week, "Not another long gospel this Sunday!" It wasn't really a serious complaint. When one is shepherding young children through mass, a long gospel can seem a trial for children and for those near by!
Fears were misplaced, however, as we listened to the very beautiful gospel story mother Church provided for our nourishment today. We were reminded in the homily that in St John's gospel, the raising of Lazarus was the last sign Jesus performed. It points unmistakably to Christ as the Master of Life whom is not thwarted even by death, and who comes to bring us the plenitude of life.
As I listened to the gospel I was very taken by the dialogue with Martha. Martha is usually, in my view wrongly, remembered just for the shorter episode in which she petitions our Lord to settle a dispute with her sister (and I also think wrongly characterised as the "doer" juxtaposed with Mary as the contemplative, but that's another story). I remember Martha most for her profession of faith, which surely must be valued alongside Peter's and Nathanael's? After professing her belief in the general resurrection she says, 'Yes Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.' What a very beautiful moment, and one to treasure in our hearts. Here is griefstricken Martha confused at the delay of Jesus and yet who greets Her Lord with faith. Her heart stricken with sorrow at the loss of her brother, but also joyful at the coming of Christ. She and her sister already knew Christ as life, knowing that he could have cured Lazarus of his life-threatening sickness. Now Jesus was helping Martha, and through her sister Mary also, to come to know what this truly meant. What is it to believe that Christ is Life?
It is natural for us to think of life in the limited way we experience it. Beginning usually with joy at conception and then birth, life grows and flourishes and then withers and dies. Our days like the grass, one day we flourish and then we fade, for the place to know us no more (I think the psalmist said something like this?). That however is not what our Lord means by "Life". For He is not talking of temporary life but eternal life. Eternal life is a new quality of life different to life as we know it. It is not life that moves inexorably towards disintegration and nothingness, but life that ascends to eternal beatitude. And it is this life that is revealed in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And because He is Life, He is for us Resurrection.
In St Athanasius' homily on the resurrection of Lazarus he poetically expands Jesus' words,
I am the voice of life that awakens the dead.
I am the good odour that takes away the foul odour.
I am the voice of joy that takes away sorrow and grief....
I am the comfort of those who are in grief.
Those who belong to me are given joy by me.
I am the joy of the whole world.
I gladden all my friends and rejoice with them.
I am the bread of life.
To come to know Christ as eternal Life is perhaps for most of us a life's work. Let us pray as we approach Easter that we might have some of the grace that St Martha had, and come to know Christ more deeply as Lord of Life, Life that is not temporal but eternal.
Life continues to grow and transform in the shadow of the Abbey tower. The now almost compulsory inspection of life in the shallow pond, revealed many tadpoles thriving in warm water. For a moment we could not find any newts but after a very careful search we at last found a few. Relief! However no legs on the tadpoles still. One wonders how a very barren looking pond can harbour such life, but should one wonder after today's gospel?
Ian Hellyer, Pastor of the Buckfast Group