Sunday Sermon for April 2, 2017, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A
Readings: Ez 37:12-14; Rom 8:8-11; Jn 11:1-45
As we draw near to the end of Lent there is more that is removed from our senses when we come to Mass. The statues are covered, the music is supposed to be more solemn, the Mass itself is more simplified; everything is getting more focused on the death of our Lord. It is in this context that we receive the surprise of the readings today which call our attention beyond death to the resurrection. But in the midst of the deprivations the Church is reminding us that death is not the end and that the deprivations of Lent will result in something far more glorious.
If we have been faithful to our Lenten regimen then we have already overcome the early temptations to go back to where we were before Lent began. We have already survived the struggle to persevere through the middle weeks of this blessed season. Now we are able to begin looking forward knowing that the virtue gained through our penances is starting to form. If we can continue until Easter, we have the hope and the promise of being able to live free of whatever vice was holding us down. Our Lord promised that He would grant more than a hundredfold for whatever we give up for His sake. The resurrection, the life lived in the Spirit of Christ, is soon to be experienced.
While we can experience these graces now as we rise victorious after Lent, this is only a foreshadowing of the grace that is promised to us if we are victorious in life itself. God promised through the Prophet Ezekiel that He would open the graves of His people and have them rise victorious from their graves. God goes on to promise that He would restore the people to the land of Israel. Since Israel is the Promised Land, I think this can be understood not as the physical land of Israel, but the spiritual Israel which is Heaven. This is especially true since the earth, and all created matter, will be destroyed in fire, so the earthly Israel will no longer be in existence to receive the people upon their return.
In this same vein, St. Paul, in the second reading, talks about those who are in the flesh as opposed to those who are in the Spirit. He talks about the body being dead to sin and receiving life through the Holy Spirit in our mortal bodies, so the juxtaposition of flesh and Spirit is about our spiritual state while we are still alive in the body.
St. Paul goes so far as to say that if we do not have the Spirit of Christ, we do not belong to Him. If we do have our Lord’s Spirit, the body is dead because of sin while the spirit is alive because of righteousness. It is this union with the Holy Spirit through grace which allows us to be in Christ in this life, but more importantly, to be united with Him forever in the next life. St. Paul reminds us that it is this same Spirit Who will give life to our mortal bodies at the resurrection.
This is such a beautiful truth that St. Paul points us to: the body is dead now because of sin, (which is why it will have to die physically and be buried one day) but even our body will share in the life of the Spirit, or it will be alive because of righteousness, to use St. Paul’s words, in Heaven. So, for now we are striving to discipline the body and die to ourselves in physical ways so that we will experience an increase in life in the spiritual sense. The soul will have more freedom as the body is brought into greater subjection.
In the midst of our Lenten discipline we may be plagued by the devil’s temptation to make us think that what we are doing is worthless. In response, we have to make an act of faith similar to that of Martha in today’s Gospel. When our Lord told her that her dead brother would rise again, she was able to state that she knew he would rise in the resurrection on the last day. Of greater importance, she was able to make an act of faith that Jesus Himself is the resurrection, the Christ, the Son of God.
The purpose of our Lenten penances goes beyond simply trying to be more virtuous in this life, but it is to bring us to eternal life where we will be alive because of righteousness. The more righteous we are in this life, the more fully we will share in the life of God in Heaven. So, our faith that, in Jesus, we will rise from the dead, obtains for us the grace to die to sin and live in righteousness.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.