Alive Again: Lent Week 5

Since March of 2020, the reality of death has been literally in our faces every single day as we constantly engage with the tragic pandemic stories on the news. Yet, coronavirus is not the only reminder of our mortality. There are natural disasters, school shootings, fatal accidents, other diseases, and most recently, the war in Ukraine to remind us that life on this side of the veil is fragile. While we live with the certainty that no one gets out of this alive, most of us remain in denial, shocked at the death toll, believing somehow that we are all supposed to die peacefully in our sleep at age 100. In reality, this is an uncommon experience and found nowhere in Scripture.

The Gospel for the Fifth Week of Lent, Cycle A (the RCIA readings), the story of the Raising of Lazarus leads us ever more deeply into the mystery of life, sickness, death and resuscitation. This confounding narrative could be the source of a lifelong “lectio divina,” there are so many quirky details. Lazarus and Jesus are best friends, something we did not really know much about before this story. Lazarus falls fatally ill (think of someone in ICU with Covid) and although Jesus is told to come right away, he takes his sweet time getting there. Lazarus is dead and in the tomb three days before Jesus finally arrives. He seems utterly surprised, weeps copiously, and then performs perhaps his greatest miracle: he calls Lazarus back to life. The story ends there but I always wonder what Lazarus said to Jesus at dinner that night.

A happy ending to the finality of death is also at the heart of the Paschal Mystery with the resurrection of Jesus. Holy Week is coming soon and we will be plunged again into pondering why Jesus chose to endure enormous suffering, horrendous torture, and humiliating execution before he spends three days in a tomb and is resurrected. I never look forward to walking through the gulf of grief and lamentations on Good Friday and Holy Saturday but by Easter Sunday, I am always grateful for this sacred journey, fraught with lessons about dying for love and holding the many sorrows of everyday living.

This past week, I attended the musical “The Secret Garden” produced by the young thespians at Santa Margarita High School. Like many of you no doubt, I had read the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett when I was very young and had always loved the story. Since the play’s Broadway debut in 1991, I had longed to see the theatrical adaptation on stage and was not disappointed by this stellar production. (I am always astonished by these talented young artists!) As the story goes, the unresolved grief in a family locks the door to beauty, preventing the living and the dead to move on. Then, quite by accident, a lonely, grief-stricken little girl with resilience and tenacity, finds the key that opens the door to a secret garden that has grown fallow. Love awakens the dormant plants, brings technicolor to the flowers, and heals the brokenhearted. Out of death, life comes forth, unbound, like Lazarus, alive again; like all who make their peace with the cycle of death and rebirth.

Oftentimes, when sickness or death invades life, people of faith question how those without spiritual inclinations can endure its ravishing effects. How indeed? Right at the top of my list of spiritual questions for God has always been the same one: Why do we (or anything really) have to die? Only in the silence of meditation each day can I even begin to release such queries and embrace the birthless, deathless Christ who lives hidden inside the secret garden of each human soul. Only then am I surrounded by the communion of saints and angels, still with us, alive again in every remembrance.

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