02 Apr 2017


Imagine you’re an outsider, but curious about Christianity. Or that you’ve put your foot in the door, if not yet in the water, and are preparing for baptism at Easter. What questions would be on your mind? What should you experience or be given to read by those accompanying you? After zillions of inquiries and millions of newcomers, the Church long ago settled upon three Gospel passages as her favourite offerings to catechumens in the final straight before Holy Week. We’ve heard those long readings over the last three Sundays and all three are from St John’s Gospel: chapter 4, the story of the woman at the well in the Samaritan town called Sychar; chapter 9, the story of the blind man at the pool in the Jewish capital of Jerusalem; and today chapter 11, the story of the dead man at the tomb in the West Bank village of Bethany.

You might say these Gospel passages were obvious choices, as all three touch on baptismal themes. The woman at the well learns there is a spring of water only Jesus can give, welling up within her soul till all thirst is finally quenched. The man discovers a pool, washing in which will restore his sight, expanding his mind with perpetual light. And the dead man and his grieving sisters are born again at the tomb to a life that will grow in their hearts unto eternal life. These three themes of water, light and new life are of course the central themes of the Baptismal liturgy.

But there are more reasons to offer these three Gospels to every inquirer. Each is a story of fundamental human need; together you might say they sum up every human need. The Samaritan woman’s need is a spiritual-moral one: she is an outcast, empty despite her many men, with deep longing in her heart, a desire to know whom and where to worship ‘in spirit and in truth’. The Siloamite man’s need is a social-emotional one: because he is blind people presume he is a sinner; his neighbours and even his parents will not stand up for him; he is a beggar with no credibility, but with a profound desire to love and be loved, to see and be seen, to believe and be believed. And the Bethanite man’s need is a physical-metaphysical one: with the sick, dying and dead, he is cut off from humanity and hope. So these three represent all needy humanity, searching for meaning, healing, hope.

All three needy souls encounter Christ and through that encounter begin the life of faith. The woman at the well comes to see that the man she first called ‘you Jew’, is better tagged ‘Sir prophet’, and then ‘the Messiah’. The man at the pool likewise progresses from calling Jesus ‘the guy who touched my eyes’, to ‘the healer from God’ to finally saying ‘Lord, I believe you are the Son of Man’. And the sisters speaking for their dead brother recognise Jesus first as the technician who could have prevented this thing, then as their friend who weeps with them, but eventually as ‘the Christ, the Son of God, the One who was coming into the world’.

After recognising our need, encountering Christ and growing in faith, we express this in worship and witness. The Samaritan woman, we recall, went off to tell the townsfolk she’d found the Christ, the One who knew everything about her; and “many Samaritans of that town believed in him on the strength of her testimony”. The blind man, we remember, fell down in worship before Jesus, and gave his testimony to all who asked, even the prosecuting authorities. So well-known did his story become, that in today’s Gospel the cynics say “Jesus opened the eyes of that blind man, could he not have prevented Lazarus’ death too?” Well, better than preventing it, he conquered it, giving Lazarus back his life and his sisters, so that “many of the Jews believed in Him.” The new convert, the newly healed, the newly alive become the great evangelists: they know God’s power in their lives and they cannot but share it with others.

What is it that this new life with Christ promises the catechumens and all of us? Many people in history hoped ritual or technology could extend mortal life indefinitely. But Lazarus was not given a new lease of life to feed a fetish for more earthly life. Rather, it is as a sign that Christ’s life-giving power will conquer Death at Easter. He reveals Himself as God, I-am, the ground of all being: to the well woman “I am the Christ coming into the world, I-am-He, speaking to you”; to the new-sighted man “I am the Son of Man, I-am-He, speaking to you”; and to the lamenting family “I am the Resurrection and the Life, I-am-He, speaking to you”. He is the only One who can give the thirsty woman an undying spring, give the blind man perpetual light, give the dead man a foretaste of eternity.

Resurrection is promised here not just for the body but for the heart and soul as well. The Fathers of the Church read this as a promise to the emotionally dead: those numb with grief or fear, those stinking in the grave of jealousy, hatred or self-pity. We all come to Christ needing our emotional hearts renewed as much as our physical ones.

And in our epistle Paul identifies the spiritually dead as well (Rom 8:8-11), whether from the lethal blow of mortal sin or the sleeping sickness of many lesser peccadillos. Like the apostles complacently saying before Lazarus died, “He’ll be fine”, we can be blind to situations that are truly grave. For sin, you see, is grave, is death: death to love of God and neighbour, death to character, soul and destiny. With such a death the soul rots in the sepulchre of iniquity – proud and selfish and vain, mummified like Lazarus and unable to break free.

But Jesus grieves physical, emotional or spiritual death in us. It is we who provoke that shortest and most moving verse in the New Testament: “Jesus wept.”

Jesus weeps. He intercedes for us with His Father. And He goes into combat with our last enemy, Death, declaring Himself our champion, our Resurrection and our Life.

Lazarus was, of course, only resuscitated. He would die again and in the meantime suffer the challenges we all do. Like us, he looked forward to the Resurrection, the glorification of his body, heart and soul. Like us, he could only hope for that day when every tear will be wiped away, when we will be released from the binding cloths of sadness and sin, when all our physical, emotional and spiritual needs will be answered. But in the meantime Lazarus glimpsed life eternal as the catechumens do when they receive Baptism at Easter, and as we do when we receive that ‘Second Baptism’ that is the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Today Christ calls us out of our tombs of sickness and decay, of loneliness and depression, of vice and sin. And on those who come out of death to Him, He pours out those most wonderful words of absolution: “Unbind him and let him go free!”


Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for the Solemn Mass of the Fifth Sunday of Lent as we now join Jesus on the final straight to Jerusalem and the cross, that we might join Him also at His Easter rising. To everyone present, including visitors and more regulars, a very warm welcome!