5th Sunday of Lent (March 18, 2018) Year A
Death can be a very scary thing to talk about. But first, let me clarify. As Christians, there are two types of death we often refer to. The first is dying to sin and being reborn in Christ. This is what happens in the sacrament of Baptism. It’s exciting to know that there are several among us at St. Andrew’s that will be born again in the waters of Baptism at the Easter Vigil this year. They will be further strengthened in their new Christian life that same night when they also receive the sacrament of Confirmation AND receive our Lord in the Eucharist for the first time ever. This is the fun type of death that we can talk about all day long and get those warm and fuzzy feelings because the people who “die to sin” are still with us afterwards.
The second type of death… well…let’s just say… there are not so many warm and fuzzy feelings. I’m obviously referring to the type of death where we lose a loved one, have a funeral and then mourn for days, weeks, even years after their passing.
But the question I’m posing today for your consideration is… WHY? Why do we get so excited to see someone die to sin and be born again into God’s family through Baptism… but so sad when a faithful Christian dies to this world and is granted eternal life with God?
In a way, I believe this is the question Jesus is asking us through today’s Gospel from John. It’s a long passage so I won’t read it again to you. But basically, Lazarus has died and everyone is in mourning. Many of the people blame Jesus for not being around to save him from death. You see… they believe Jesus is the Son of God, but they still don’t yet understand the resurrection since Jesus hasn’t been crucified yet. But Jesus knows. He fully knows what’s to come and has been preaching to His followers that they will have new life in God in this life AND the next.
But still, the people blame Him while they mourn the death of Lazarus. One of my favorite parts of this passage is where Jesus shows us His human side. We read two times that Jesus is “perturbed.” Yes, even Jesus got upset and irritated at people! He is perturbed because people’s faith in His teaching on heaven and the afterlife is very weak. Rather than celebrating Lazarus’ new life with God, they mourned his death and blamed Jesus for not saving him. I can see Jesus’ eyes roll, hand on his forehead, as he gets perturbed and says, “Fine, I’ll give you one more sign but then that’s it! You really need to start believing in what I’m telling you!” Then he turns to the tomb and cries out, “Lazarus, come out!” And he did.
Now, I acknowledge that we mourn over someone’s death because we won’t see them anymore. I get that. It stings greatly. Trust me, I know. But I think we struggle with death and mourn so intensely after losing a loved one because, deep down, our faith might be a little weak when it comes to heaven.
I can see someone get baptized. I can see someone receive the Lord’s Supper. I can see someone get confirmed. But I can’t “see” what happens to someone’s soul after they die.
Death is that one moment where our faith is put to the ultimate test. We are told that we will stand before God right after our bodily death. So death is the moment that we as Christians realize if this whole “Jesus, Church, Bible” thing is true or just a nice sounding fairy tale. And I think that scares us. I know I’ve struggled with this concept for a long time. I would like to think I’m a faithful Christian who tries my best to follow Christian teachings. But I still wonder if at the moment of my death, I’ll be confident in my faith or “hold my breath” (so to speak) as I wait to see what REALLY happens after I die.
I had a very real, very concrete experience that happened to me recently that has strengthened my faith regarding heaven that I wanted to share. We Catholics pray for the “repose of the soul” of someone after his or her death. It’s a very common practice that dates back to the early Church. It’s based on the teaching that people sometimes need to go to purgatory after death, before entering heaven. Purgatory being a final purification stop on the way to heaven. Think of it as a car wash. When we pray for the repose of the soul of someone, we’re asking God to speed up the process, if possible, so they can enjoy life in heaven sooner. After my mom’s death in October 2017, I’ve been praying for the repose of her soul often.
Well… I was at Mass at the Christ the King Cathedral in Lexington this past February. Angie and I were there assisting with the next class of future Deacons. I had just received communion and returned to my pew to kneel in prayer. With eyes closed and hands folded, I prayer, “Lord, I offer up this Eucharist for the repose of the soul of my mother, Joan Wentz.” And then I froze for a few moments. After that feeling passed, I picked up the hymnal and started to sing the communion hymn… but only got 3 or 4 words out and then I froze up again. Still on my knees, I put the hymnal down and closed my eyes again. I couldn’t move… I couldn’t speak. It was at that moment that I felt my mother’s arms around me. It’s as if she was kneeling to my left, giving me a side hug with her head on my shoulder. It was very real and I just kneeled there… enjoying the hug… as I cried silently. A few minutes later, she was gone. I’m not sure if that’s the moment she left purgatory and entered heaven or if God just knew I needed a hug from my mom that day.
I’ve reflected back on that incident a lot since it happened. I have even kneeled down at Mass after communion and tried to “re-create” the incident to see if it was just in my mind. But I’ve had no luck. I truly feel that God allowed my mom to visit me that day for a brief moment. Since then, I’ve had a better sense of peace that my mom is with God in heaven. I decided to tell all of you about it today because, honestly, I think we all could use a little encouragement when it comes to death and the afterlife. Many of us have lost loved ones this past year.
So yes, don’t be afraid to mourn for those that have passed away. But as we approach Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday… really pay attention and allow all of your senses to be flooded with LOVE. Because it is with LOVE that Jesus offered His body to us on Holy Thursday. It is with LOVE that he died for us on Good Friday. It is with LOVE that He overcame death and opened the gates of heaven for all of us on Easter Sunday. And if you can see with open eyes what Jesus did for us on those Holy Days… then you will absolutely realize just how much He loves YOU. And that love WILL continue into the next life because it is NOT just a fairy tale.