ROWING UP, I worked a bunch of different part-time jobs. But the very first job I ever had in the Church was cutting the grass in the cemetery at my home parish. My friend, Tim, and I used to push-mow the whole cemetery and then go back and weedwhack it. It took us a few days to trim the whole cemetery. In the summer months, by the time we finished the project, we had to start all over again; we would mow then weedwhack, mow then weedwhack.
Some folks might think working in and around cemeteries is a morbid thing, but that hasn’t been my experience. Remember that the Lord, Himself, spent three days in a tomb. As we hear in the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the Lord is not at all afraid to talk about graves and deal with them in a hands-on way.
The words of Ezekiel, chapter 37: “Thus says the Lord GOD: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them.” Our first instinct upon hearing these words is probably to think of them as a future promise: God will raise us up after we die. But, is this promise really only about the future, after we die? Or is it also about the here and now?
I propose that the Lord is promising to raise us up not only on the Last Day, but also to raise us up out of the graves of our sins. Sin is death; sin is slavery; sin is a state of being buried alive. Those are all scriptural ways of describing sin, and we know them all-too-well from our own experience.
We refuse to stand up for someone who needs it, and, in so doing, we bind up our feet. We fail to give money to the poor and needy among us, and our hands are bound up. Every time we speak harsh words out of anger or frustration, our mouths are wrapped tight. We choose not to be compassionate in sharing a friend’s burden, and our shoulders are bound with tape. When we don’t make time for church and daily prayer, our hearts are shrouded. When we judge the people around us by superficial measures, our eyes are blindfolded. After a little while, as our sins pile on top of one another, we end up totally mummified. We end up looking a lot like Lazarus.
Lazarus is a dead man in this Gospel story. The text tells us that he has been in the tomb already for four days and that he is “tied hand and foot.” After Martha & Mary beg Jesus to do something, the Lord calls Lazarus out of the tomb: “Lazarus, come out!” Then, He immediately gives another very direct command. He says to Martha and Mary, “Untie (λύσατε) him and let him go.”
That word Jesus uses for “untie” is interesting. That word in Greek (λύσατε) is the same word that means “to set loose” in the Gospel verse that says, “Whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:18). That verse, of course, refers to the power given to the Apostles to forgive sins. So, the same meaning can be applied to Jesus’ command to “untie” Lazarus. What’s going on there isn’t just the physical removal of burial cloths. It’s also about Jesus’ power to forgive sins. The message is this: Jesus has power over sin and death, and He offers us freedom in place of the bondage of sin.
What our Lord does for Lazarus, He wants so much to do for us, too. As He says through Ezekiel: “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them.” In the Sacrament of Penance, Jesus says to each one of us, “Lazarus, come out [of the grave].” He says, “Untie him,” and the burial cloths of our sins fall to pieces around us. It took Jesus only a few simple words to restore Lazarus, and it takes only the simple words of a priest to bring us new life and the forgiveness of our sins.
When was the last time you went to confession? Our Lord stands ready to do His part, but we must agree to leave the grave. We cannot reach out for freedom & forgiveness and cling to slavery & sin at the same time. The Lord is eager to begin the work of unbinding, unchaining us. Will we allow ourselves to be set free?