5th Sunday of Lent
Live-Streamed Mass (Coronavirus Crisis)
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
Mar. 29, 2020
As some of you know, my Mom recently celebrated her 100th birthday, and several weeks ago, she lost her husband of 73 years. Due to the pandemic, Mom, who lives in a nursing home, cannot have visitors. She misses seeing my brother who lives nearby, a niece who visits her daily, and various family members and friends who would drop by to see her. I call Mom every day, usually in the evening, just to see how she’s doing. One evening my Mom spoke of two things she is finding especially difficult. First is a feeling of isolation – she misses her husband and being with her family; she also misses being with other residents, whether in the dining room or the chapel. And second is a sense of fear as the pandemic spreads. Mom is not fearful for herself but she is fearful for my brother and for me. Like parents everywhere, she is in dread that the virus may claim one of her own.
Mom’s deep concerns are echoed and re-echoed in the many messages and prayer requests I’ve received in recent days. One parishioner told me that, even though she and her family are mostly at home, [she said] “Everything is disrupted. It’s like we’re living in a strange new place.” Another wrote to say how much he appreciated all the ways his parish is reaching out to him and to his family during this crisis, but he added, “Nothing takes the place of being together in person.” Still another wrote to tell me that she had lost a relative to the coronavirus and went on to say how vulnerable she and her husband feel; they are getting older and they suffer from underlying health problems. So many priests have said how much they miss being with their people, and told me of their deep worries for the health and well-being of parishioners.
A sense of estrangement from our normal daily lives, a sense of isolation, coupled with sorrow and fear as this pandemic tightens its grip on us: these are the kinds of emotions so many of us are grappling with. How does God’s Word help us deal with such disruption, isolation, and fear? What light do today’s Scriptures shed on these common experiences of ours?
Estrangement, Disruption, Isolation
At a moment when we are dealing with disruption and isolation, perhaps we can find solace and instruction in our reading from the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel prophesied during the time of the Babylonian Exile, a time when the lives of the people of Israel and Judah were totally disrupted. Many, including Ezekiel himself, were deported to Babylon; Jerusalem and its Temple lay in ruins; and hope had all but vanished. Everything near and dear to them seemed to hang in the balance.
So, it was to a people in desperate straits that Ezekiel spoke in God’s name. And to that people, a people who were as good as dead, Ezekiel dared to say these words on God’s behalf: “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel . . . . I will put my spirit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land, thus you shall know that I am the LORD.” To some, Ezekiel’s words must have seemed like a pipedream; but to others, they signaled that God would indeed bring good out of evil, justice out of injustice, glory out of degradation.
How do Ezekiel’s words strike us in our “exile” from our normal routine, in our “exile” from family members, friends, classmates, and colleagues? Do his words sound overly optimistic? Or do they make us hopeful that soon we can get back to normal? Or, do they tell us that, in the aftermath of this pandemic, the Lord doesn’t want us to go back to “normal”, to business as usual? Is not the Lord looking to put his spirit in us so that we may live in a new way? Closer to our families. Stronger in our faith. More open to others in need. In the midst of our “exile”, let us allow the Lord to speak to our heart of hearts.
Death and the Fear of Death
Yet, the disruption of our daily lives is but the tip of iceberg, as they say. A much greater fear has over taken us as infections and deaths continue to rise. Feeling vulnerable ourselves, we fear for the lives of family members and loved ones. Far too many of us now know someone who has contracted or died from this virus.
In the grip of this scourge, we encounter in today’s Gospel Martha and Mary who were mourning the death of their brother Lazarus. In fact, while Lazarus was still alive but gravely ill, Martha sent word to her friend Jesus, hoping that he might cure her brother. Strangely, Jesus neither rushed to Lazarus’ bedside, nor did he prevent his death. Jesus took his time in coming; by the time he arrived, Lazarus was dead four days. Martha seems gently to chide her friend, Jesus, for not coming sooner: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” – but she adds – “Even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”
Martha was a woman of faith. She believed her brother would someday rise. She also believed in Jesus, yet her faith, like ours, was still a work-in-progress. When asked by Jesus if she believed that he was “the resurrection and the life”, Martha answered, “Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Christ…” Yet, when Jesus went to Lazarus’ tomb and ordered the stone to be rolled away, Martha protested, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead four days.” . . . How much we are like Martha! We believe, but maybe not yet absolutely.
The Gospel makes clear that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. He shared their grief over Lazarus’ death; he wept at the entrance to his tomb. Jesus is indeed that ‘high priest able to sympathize with our weakness!’ (cf. Heb. 4:15) Yet in raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus was not merely doing his friends a favor; nor was Jesus solely asserting his divine power over life and death; nor still less was he behaving like a magician or a worker of wonders, not at all! Rather Jesus was intent on giving you and me a sign, a foreshadowing, of his own impending death and resurrection . . . his paschal mystery, by which he would win for us, not a mere extension of our earthly life, but rather a new and imperishable existence, a glorified, heavenly existence. It’s what St. Paul calls in our second reading, “Life in the Spirit”. St. Paul is talking about a new, supernatural life that is given to us in Baptism through which “the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in us.” . . . Friends, even in this valley of tears where so much can and does go wrong, even as we contend with our own mortality and that of our loves ones, Jesus has planted in us the seeds of immortality, the hope of eternal life.
Do We Believe?
Now, in the midst of this pandemic and all the disruption and fear it is causing, Jesus asks you and me, as once he asked Martha, “Do you believe?” Even as we profess with all our heart and soul our faith in the Risen Lord, St. Paul, in his turn, challenges us to demonstrate our faith in Christ, our belief that the new life Christ won for us, even now, is flowing, like a river, through our soul. For Paul challenges us to live, not according to the flesh, but according to the spirit, that is to say, to live in such a way that even now, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we freely embrace the hardships and fears this crisis has introduced into our lives, asking the Risen Lord to make them a means of purifying and strengthening our faith, asking that our sufferings be joined to the Lord’s own sacrifice of love on the Cross. For as Jesus himself said, “Fear is useless. What is needed is faith!” (Lk. 8:50; Mk. 5:36)
This doesn’t mean that we stop doing everything necessary to protect our loved ones, or that we would stop conducting ourselves as the most responsible of citizens. It only means that in the midst of it all, we need to keep our eyes of faith squarely focused on the new and everlasting life that Jesus won for us, a life that is nothing less than a participation in God’s own Triune life, a life that is stronger than the entire sum of human sinfulness and human weakness, a love that is stronger than death itself. And may God bless you and your families and keep you always in his love!