The Confession of Lazarus
by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.
Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill. So the sisters sent word to Jesus saying, "Master, the one you love is ill," When Jesus heard this he said, "This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God that the son of God may be glorified through it." Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was. Then after this he said to his disciples, "Let us go back to Judea." The disciples said to him, "Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?" Jesus answered, "Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him." He said this, and then told them, "Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him." So the disciples said to him, "Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved." But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, "Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him." So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go to die with him."
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away. And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise." Martha said to him, "I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus told her, "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world."
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, "The teacher is here and is asking for you." As soon as she heard this, she rose quickly and went to him. For Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still where Martha had met him. So when the Jews who were with her in the house comforting her saw Mary get up quickly and go out, they followed her, presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Sir, come and see." And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him." But some of them said, "Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?"
So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the dead man's sister, said to him, "Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, "Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they many believe that you sent me." And when he had said this, He cried out in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out?" The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to the, "Untie him and let him go."
“Untie him and let him go” (Jn 11:45). Our Lord’s words after raising Lazarus should sound somewhat familiar to us. Familiar, not because we hear them often, but because they resemble other words we should hear often: “I absolve you from your sins …” To “absolve” means to set free — to loose, unbind … untie. Our sins become chains that bind us in death, like the burial cloths of Lazarus. We also need to have them removed, to be untied. These similarities suggest that the entire account of Lazarus’ raising provides a way of understanding the sacrament of penance. Indeed, we can find in the story the three necessary ingredients of a good confession.
First, sorrow. The story begins with great sadness. Martha and Mary and the Jews from Jerusalem all weep at the death of Lazarus. So, the first step in a good confession is sorrow for our sins. Without this, nothing else matters. The crowds mourned the death of Lazarus. We should mourn the death of our souls, the death of Christ’s life within us. The most significant sadness in the Gospel story is our Lord’s. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus. St. Augustine explains that our Lord weeps to teach us to weep for our sins: “Christ wept: let man weep for himself. For why did Christ weep but to teach men to weep?” Blessed are those who mourn.
Of course, Penance does not require literal weeping. Tears are not obligatory. It does, however, require a sincere contrition for our sins — the rejection of them out of love of God, or at least out of fear of punishment. And with sorrow for sin must also come the resolution not to sin again. This is why the priest asks for the Act of Contrition in the confessional — not to test you on the prayer but to ensure that you possess at least the minimum degree of contrition.
Second, confession. Our Lord asks, “Where have you laid him?” (Jn 11:34) Now, He knew full well where Lazarus was buried. He did not need them to show Him the tomb. But by asking this, He calls more trust and faith out of them. He wants them to show Him the place of death and hopelessness — where it hurts the most. And unless they take Him there, they will not witness His miracle. Notice that they do not say, “Go find it yourself.” They say, “Sir, come and see” (Jn 11:34). They bring Life Himself to that place of death.
When we confess our sins, we, in effect, bring Jesus to our place of death, where life has been buried by sin. Yes, He knows our sins already — indeed, better than we do. By confessing our sins — by naming them in the sacrament — we hand them over to Him and give Him authority over them. We bring Jesus to the tomb of our souls — to that place of death called sin. “Come and see,” the people said to our Lord (Jn 11:34). By naming our sins — both the kind and the number — we do likewise, giving Him authority to destroy the bonds of death within us.
Third, penance. It is Our Lord alone Who raises Lazarus from the dead. But notice that for His power to realize its purpose, He enlists the cooperation of others. “Take away the stone,” He commands them (Jn 11:39). And afterwards He says (to interpret the words another way), “Untie him and let him go.” Consider how difficult these commands were to obey. Martha objects to the first command: “Lord, by now there will be a stench” (Jn 11:39). And untying the formerly dead man was probably not very appealing either. Nevertheless, Our Lord’s divine work of raising Lazarus incorporates their human cooperation.
So, also, our acts of penance. God alone forgives sins through the ministry of the priest. He alone restores souls to life. But for His grace to work fruitfully in our souls, we need to cooperate. We need to do our penance. Thus the purpose of the penance is not to win forgiveness — God alone grants that, and freely — but to bring us into cooperation with the healing He desires for us. It is medicinal. The more we embrace our penances and perform them in faith, the more healing they bring us.
Lord did not raise all the dead as He did Lazarus. And even poor Lazarus died
again. His miracle involves more than mere physical resuscitation. It points to
that greater, spiritual reality we experience when we kneel in death and rise in
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