The football game is over and the sportscaster is interviewing the coach of the winning team. They talk knowledgably about the players and critical plays and then the sportscaster asks the coach the big question: “What was the turning point in the game?”
Two friends are sharing a whole lot about their lives. The conversation is warm and deep. One of them had just learned the heartbreaking news that his wife was going to divorce him. There were tears as the entire saga of the marriage was reviewed and then his friend asks; “What was the critical moment, the beginning of the end?”
Or it could be that a retired general is being interviewed on television about a war in which he was involved. The planning, the execution, and the lost and won battles were discussed, along with the personalities of the critical officers and men that were involved. Finally the interview centers on the hinge point, the defining moment, when victory was assured.
In the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the centerpiece in each one of them is the passion and death of Jesus Christ. All aspects of the four gospels point to that one defining event, not only in our lives but also in the world’s history. The defining event for them all is the final week of Christ’s life is.
For the three Sundays leading up to Palm Sunday the Church presents us with gospel accounts taken from St. John’s Gospel. St. John’s Gospel is not arranged according to chronological events but rather according to themes. From all of the miracles performed by Jesus, John selected seven. He presents them as the Seven Great Signs, signs that are miracles revealing Christ as the divine Son of God, God’s Word made flesh, signs revealing God’s divinity made present to us in the humanity of Jesus Christ. The Seven Signs are the wedding feast at Cana where Jesus turns water into wine. He is able to change one substance into another. The healing of the nobleman’s son is next, where, in response to faith, Jesus is able to give life to someone who has died. The healing of the paralyzed man then follows. Jesus is able to restore full life to those who are spiritually paralyzed. Next is the feeding of the five thousand, revealing that God’s caring and nurturing love is limitless. That miracle is followed by Jesus walking on water, revealing that nothing can keep Our Blessed Lord from those who are in peril and in great need. The healing of the man born blind confounds the Pharisees and those who are spiritually blind while at the same time Jesus gives light and sight to those who, in faith, want to see, who want to see our world in God’s Light. The last is the raising of Lazarus from the dead, a powerful miracle that reveals the power of God in a way that none can deny.
That was the critical moment in Christ’s life, the tipping point that brought about the inevitable conclusion. As you recall, in Christ’s life there was a gradual build-up of resentment, fear, hatred, and rejection of Jesus Christ. There were a lot of events that culminated in this one great miracle, the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
The political and religious leadership were now totally threatened. This miracle could not be ignored. Christ’s popularity with the crowds was now so great that the leaders were facing the complete loss of their privileged positions and their power.
It needs to be pointed out that it was not the Jewish people who were threatened by Jesus and wanted to put Him to death. No, it was the Roman and Jewish authorities, the people holding power and privilege who wanted to do away with him. After all, we must remember that the first Christians were, for the most part, Jews. St. Luke was a Greek. He was not one of the Twelve Apostles, they were all Jews. So, too, were Mary and Joseph. It is a great injustice to claim that the Jewish people were responsible for Our Blessed Lord’s crucifixion and death.
We all know full well that people on top of our political and economic systems will commit great evil in order to protect their power. Some use their privileged positions to commit terrible acts of abuse. The headlines of our newspapers are filled with more than enough examples of that. History, too, particularly the history of WWII, and many other events in human history as well, point to what the human heart is capable of doing in terms of evil. This is particularly true with dictators.
The Old Testament provides many examples of God’s holy prophets being rejected and put to death. The fact that they were holy people did not guarantee them safety or protection. They performed miracles, astonishing miracles that could only come about by the power of God, and yet these prophets were done in by powerful people who were threatened by them.
So here in today’s Gospel account (John 11:1-45) we find more and more of the Jews clamoring for Jesus, seeking him out, and coming to the realization that his teachings were far more authoritative than the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the members of the Jewish elite. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead his popularity ratings soared through the roof. From the perspective of those in power and control of the people, something had to be done… and it had to be done NOW!
So they made the critical decision — they had to kill Jesus of Nazareth. This, of course, was something Jesus knew would happen. He had seen it coming for quite some time. He knew that by bringing Lazarus out of the tomb he himself would be entering a tomb.
The shortest passage in the New Testament is one you just heard. Jesus wept. It is also one of the most profound. Well, why did he weep? Obviously it was not for Lazarus, for Jesus knew the happiness Lazarus and his family were about to receive. Were not those tears the tears of one who knows he has been completely rejected? The agony in the Garden of Gethsemani begins here. We find Jesus on the Mt. of Olives weeping. Lazarus was buried in a new tomb… Jesus is about to be buried in a new tomb. Both had great stones rolled in front of their entrances. Both bodies were wrapped in linens. How can we miss the parallels?
Jesus knew he was to see the tomb from the inside. The Lazarus event reported here was an event lasting three days. It foreshadowed Christ’s own three days in the tomb. Now we see that the raising of Lazarus was the most crucial event in Christ’s entire ministry. It was the defining moment, the turning point, the beginning of the end.
“Unbind him and let him go free” was Christ’s command to the onlookers. Freedom, our freedom, our freedom to do good, to freely choose to do beautiful things for God, is the reason for it all. Christ emptied Lazarus’ tomb so he could change places with him. Divinity took on our humanity so that our humanity could take on his divinity. Because of Christ we are no longer entombed in sin. We are freed of Satan’s grip and are no longer destined to end up in hell. Because of Jesus Christ we are able now, as St. Paul declares, to “walk in the glorious freedom of the children of God.”