Homily of Bishop Donal McKeown for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

30 Mar 2020

Jesus was very often hard to understand. Regularly, he seemed to be at least one step ahead of his listeners. Thus, when he says to his apostles that Lazarus is ‘resting’, they assume that he will get better and be fine. When Jesus arrives at Bethany, Martha complains that he should have been there earlier. And even when Jesus talks about Lazarus rising again, she mistakenly thinks she knows what he means.

We are in the middle of a very confusing period. Regulations change by the day. Different scientists appear to have contrasting views of the best way forward. And then we have the wave of conspiracy theories that this is all being stoked by the Chinese or Bill Gates or big business – or that religious believers should take no precautions. So, what is Jesus trying to teach his uncertain followers?

Firstly, everything in the Gospel is about generating hope. Even condemnation of sin is always seasoned with a rich promise of forgiveness. The raising of Lazarus is a sign of what will happen at Jesus’ resurrection, because death does not have the last laugh. Here is not as good as it gets. The heavy rock over the cold tomb is not the heartless beast that crushes the life from all of our dreams. When Jesus says about Lazarus, “Unbind him let him go free” I see that as a call to free us all from the suffocating idea that life’s value is measured only by a short span of years and by what we have achieved. If fame, fun and fortune were the only measures of human dignity and achievement, then most people’s lives would be a waste of time and space. The resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus exalts human dignity because it makes space for love, dedication and generous self-sacrifice. And for the greatness of the little ones.

In these weeks, we will be missing so many of the soothers that entertain us, many of the familiar structures that give shape to our days and weeks. Jesus asks us not to be afraid of the tombs where so many of our plans and boasts appear to have been buried. As with the apostles and Martha, Jesus says to us “I want to show you a different way of looking at things.” Face this temporary ‘bereavement’ with hope and confidence that God is in the midst of it, putting everything in a new perspective. That is much more mature and nourishing than rage or conspiracy theories.

Secondly, Jesus raises Lazarus’ body. For followers of Jesus, our bodies are sacred. We were made in the image and likeness of God. For believers, Saint Paul says that the Spirit of God has made its home in you, in your body. Elsewhere Jesus says that, for those who love him, the Father and he will come and also make his home in us. Our bodies can be touched by Christ though the sacraments, especially through Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick. Our bodies will be raised up in glory on the Last Day, through what St Paul says is “his Spirit living in you.”

That dignity of the body is the context for our understanding of the sacredness of human life and our morality. That faith frees us from the widespread conviction that we have to sacrifice our human dignity at the altar of our deepest drives. It is a very destructive belief that the groin is God – and, yet, that is the deadly message that much of our culture is spewing out. Jesus calls us to go more than skin deep. Only by moving away beyond the surface, can we experience the beauty of love, gentleness and be free to live with the truth. Chastity creates a culture where couples, families and friends can seek to heal one another and not just use one another. Again, Jesus offers us freedom, hope and beauty, not merely slavery to the animal within.

Thirdly, Jesus says that he is the Resurrection and the Life. That is a profound claim. Our culture is moving in a self-preoccupied direction which says that my feelings determine the value of life at all stages. I do not deny that there are many heart-breaking situations in life, where hard decisions have to be taken. But I think that Jesus would have a problem with the strident assertion that human life has so little value that my feelings decide whether it should exist or not. Jesus had to move the apostles and Martha beyond an earth-bound perspective. Jesus’ staggering assertion that he is the Resurrection and the Life challenges us to move beyond the belief that each adult is the author and Lord of life. A belief in the God-given nature and destiny of all human life liberates us from slavery to the agenda of me locked into the cold tomb of my lonely little me-centred universe.

Finally, many people feel very unsettled by the sense that so much is outside our control. A tiny virus is paralysing the vast and complex systems that we have created. We can send rockets into the vast reaches of space, but an invisible killer is threatening us. And we do not know what the future will look like after this has passed. But whatever happens, Jesus tells us that he is Lord of life and death. Life comes from God and death is subject to him. We need not be afraid that my life or death are meaningless. Lazarus and his sisters will die. Many of the apostles will suffer martyrdom. But Jesus is greater than the power of death and of oblivion. He gives eternal value to what we do in the body here and offers us a belief in the Resurrection hereafter. In our uncertainty, he promises that Resurrection is stronger than death and that this, too, will pass. It is this faith that has sustained generations of Christians in unimaginable situations down through history, in this country and elsewhere.

This event occurred near the end of Jesus’ public ministry, near Jerusalem where he will die. He was giving a sign to his followers that they should not be crushed by what will happen during Holy Week. In dark days then and now, the Lord invites us to wait in joyful home for the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ. He asks us to journey on, not crushed by a culture of death or by a fear of the unknown. He is in charge. Easter always follows Calvary. It is this faith and hope that will see us through dark days.


· Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry. This homily was delivered at Mass yesterday, Sunday 29 March 2020.

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