Thursday, December 17, 2009

Prayers today: Lord, you are near, and all your commandments are just; long have I known that you decreed them for ever. Psalm 118: 151-152

Lord, our sins bring us unhappiness. Hear our prayer for courage and strength. May the coming of your Son bring us the joy of salvation. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,...

Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary

Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, the brother of Martha and Mary, was the one of whom the Jews said, "See how much he loved him." In their sight Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. Legends abound about the life of Lazarus after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is supposed to have left a written account of what he saw in the next world before he was called back to life. Some say he followed Peter into Syria. Another story is that despite being put into a leaking boat by the Jews at Jaffa, he, his sisters and others landed safely in Cyprus. There he died peacefully after serving as bishop for 30 years. A church was built in his honour in Constantinople and some of his reputed relics were transferred there in 890. A Western legend has the oarless boat arriving in Gaul. There he was bishop of Marseilles, was martyred after making a number of converts and was buried in a cave. His relics were transferred to the new cathedral in Autun in 1146.

Whatever of the legends, it is certain there was early devotion to the saint. Around the year 390, the pilgrim lady Etheria talks of the procession that took place on the Saturday before Palm Sunday at the tomb where Lazarus had been raised from the dead. In the West, Passion Sunday was called Dominica de Lazaro, and Augustine tells us that in Africa the Gospel of the raising of Lazarus was read at the office of Palm Sunday.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke (7.24-30)

But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ I tell you, among those born of women there is no‑one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. All the people, even the tax collectors, who heard him, acknowledged God’s plan as right by accepting John’s baptism. But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.

(Homily by Fr. E.J. Tyler)

At the end of our Gospel passage today our Lord tells us that “all the people, even the tax collectors” accepted baptism from John. Earlier in this same Gospel, St Luke tells us that “crowds” went out to be baptized by him (3:7). For his part, Matthew tells us that “there went out to him Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins” (3:5-6). St Luke tells us that John was blunt with the crowds that came to him: “O generation of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (3:7). He was a prophet who preached fire and brimstone, we might say, and demanded that they repent. Our Lord informs us that the people accepted John’s baptism. They responded to his call and their response was signified by their being baptized by him. But the “Pharisees and experts in the law” did not. Let us consider these two classes of persons, those who received John’s baptism, and those who did not, remembering that the foremost person who accepted John’s baptism was Jesus Christ himself. Initially John would not baptize Jesus because of his profound sense of Christ’s holiness. He knew Jesus had no sin, whereas he himself was a sinner and he said that Jesus ought be the one baptizing him. By himself submitting to baptism our Lord was bearing witness to the sin of the world and to its need to repent. Man must repent. Christ’s first disciples had been trained by John: Simon and his brother Andrew, and James and John. Throughout his public ministry we see our Lord associating Peter, James and John in a special way with himself, and St Paul refers to these three as the pillars of the infant Church. They had come straight from the hand of John the Baptist. There is no doubt that the way had been prepared for our Lord by John and the burst of missionary life in the Church after Pentecost had its roots in the prophetic ministry of John. The early Church constantly refers to his ministry. His preaching of repentance and his baptism asking God’s forgiveness laid the foundation for the centrality of conversion in the Christian religion.

By contrast, our Lord tells us that the Pharisees and the lawyers did not accept the baptism of John. It seems that they held aloof. More than this, our Lord indicates in other passages of the Gospels that they positively rejected John. Coming down from the mountain after his transfiguration, our Lord told Peter, James and John — who had been disciples of John — that the leaders had treated John as they pleased. In the same chapter from which our Gospel today is drawn, our Lord tells us that John came neither eating nor drinking and they called him a devil. They were proud and unyielding before the preaching of John, despite the example of the common people who accepted him as a prophet and his baptism as God’s will for them. This refusal set the pace for their confrontation with Jesus. The conflict grew in tempo and became implacable. The more our Lord’s holiness and power became manifest, the more resolute they became to destroy him. At root was their refusal to repent. The call to repent had come from John, and they refused. This call to repent was renewed with greater force by Christ, and they refused. Pilate saw that it was because of envy and jealousy that the leaders had handed Jesus over to him. Their hearts hardened and became sunk in sin. Let us gaze upon these spiritual phenomena as illustrated by the two groups our Lord chooses to contrast. On the one hand there is the readiness to repent and on the other, the refusal to do so. Everything depends on the upshot of this choice, and we see it being played out in the public ministry and passion of Christ. There Christ hangs on the cross and before him are the leaders of the Jews, jeering at him. They are the ones who refused to repent at John’s preaching and at Christ’s preaching. Nearby stands a small group, among whom is John his beloved disciple and others of his disciples. They chose conversion and the following of him. Repentance is the door to life with Christ, while the refusal to repent is the door to death in sin.

Repentance is not just a one-off action. Conversion is not something we do on one day, or during some very significant moment, and that is all. Repentance is a daily feature of the life of the religious and Christian person. John’s call to repent, a call renewed by Christ, is a call we must hear every day. It is only on the basis of continuing repentance and turning away from sin that we can hope to follow Christ genuinely. Let us resolve to repent, to convert, and to do so every day.

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