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April 2 2017 (A) Fifth Sunday of Lent

A. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: The power of the Holy Spirit and of grace within us is stronger that our human weakness.

The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

First Reading (Ezekiel 37:12-14). I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live. In this reading we have part of the vision which the prophet Ezekiel had during the Jewish exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C. The exiles were saying: “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost; we cut off completely”. The Temple had been burnt to the ground, the Holy City of Jerusalem destroyed and Judah devastated. Metaphorically speaking the people were, so to speak, as good as dead, buried, in the grave. In this present reading God says to them that such is not the case. He is going to open their graves, to raise their corpses from the graves, put a new living spirit within them, thus giving a new life to this despondent people, with the promise to return them to their native soil of Judah. The text speaks of the resurrection of the people of Judah in exile, from the death of despair to new life. Bodily resurrection of the individual is not envisaged. This belief will become clear in Israel only about the year 200 B.C.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 129[130]). With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.

Second Reading (Romans 8:8-11). The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you. The opening verses of this reading are rendered more literally in The New Revised Standard Version, in conformity with the Greek original, as follows: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit (or: spirit, with a small s), since the Spirit of God dwells in you”. Paul makes a contrast between the “flesh” and the “Spirit” (or “spirit”, with small “s” if the Holy Spirit is not intended). By “flesh” he means the body, weak human nature, and the mind or mindset that is contrary to God and the divine, and is inclined towards sin. The sense comes across in the different wording of an earlier (1967) edition the Jerusalem Bible: “People who are interested only in unspiritual things can never be pleasing to God. Your interests, however, are not in the unspiritual, but the spiritual, since the Spirit of God has made his home in you”, a rendering somewhat modified in the later (1985) edition of that same rendering, as: “Those who live by their natural inclinations can never be pleasing to God”. Those who live by the “flesh”, in Paul’s sense of the word, those interested only in unspiritual things, those who live by their natural inclinations, cannot please God. It is different with believers who have the Spirit of God dwelling in them, the Spirit that gives new life. As Paul will say a few verses after this present reading (8:14): “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God”. Paul envisages the body dead because of sin, dead because it is destined for physical death, and is an instrument for sin. But within that same body there is another force, a power towards life, which power is the Holy Spirit given to those who have been justified through faith in Jesus Christ. God the Father, by his almighty power, raised Jesus from the dead, and the Spirit of that same Father dwells in believers, a pledge that God, through that same Spirit, will give life to the moral bodies of believers, spiritual life here on earth and the fullness of life in the hereafter.

The Gospel (John 11:1-45). I am the resurrection and the life. This lengthy Gospel reading is in line with what we have read in the Lectionary texts over the past two Sundays, readings all from the Gospel of John, texts in which Jesus avails of a human occurrence to explain aspects of the mystery that is his own person and mission. Thus we have the episode of the Samaritan woman and the well of Jacob, symbolising the water that he was to give (the Holy Spirit); the curing of the man born blind, and Jesus as the light of the world, and today the raising of Lazars and Jesus as the resurrection and the life. Jesus was friendly with the family of Bethany (Mary, Martha and Lazarus), Bethany a village about three kilometres from Jerusalem. On hearing of Lazarus’s illness Jesus said that this sickness would not end in death but in God’s glory, and that through it the Son of God (that is, Jesus himself) would be glorified. He does not go to Lazarus immediately, but allows him to die. Lazarus had been dead already four days when Jesus reaches his tomb. Jesus told Martha that her brother Lazarus would rise again, at which words Martha makes a profession of faith in the resurrection, but at the last day. This leads to Jesus’ reply, which is the high point of the narrative: “I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die”. This leads to a profession of faith by Martha in Jesus as the Christ (the Messiah) and the Son of God. There are also a number of other points made in the lengthy reading which we need not enter into here.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: The power of the Holy Spirit and of grace within us is stronger that our human weakness.

Sometimes Jesus is accused of having had little understanding of the weakness of human nature, as for instance in his total ban on divorce. In one sense the mission he gave to his followers to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth was also a difficult one. The early Church understood this mission exactly as Jesus had intended it. The Church, the Christian community, in its teaching and in its following of the Gospel, was to be a new light for the surrounding pagan world. Writing to the Corinthians Paul well describes this noble mission, as well as the human weakness of those who bear witness to it (2 Corinthians 4:6-7): “For its is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us”. Similarly, when writing to the Philippians (2:12-13), he reminds them how Christ humbled himself, taking on the form of a slave, going on to exhort them to work out their salvation in fear and trembling, because the work of salvation is a cooperation between the believer and God, and it is God who is at work in believers enabling them both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Salvation is not just through human endeavour. In the letter to the Romans, as is clear from today’s second reading, Paul lays stress on the weakness of human nature and its inclination to sin, but only to highlight Christ’s victory over sin and its deadly power, a victory of the Holy Spirit over human weakness. Where sin increased there grace abounded all the more.

            Turning from Paul to our own day, the Church is often criticised for its numerous rules, as if rules were everything. Such a criticism if often justified, but sometimes the censures are directed not against specifically Church rules as such but directives which are part of the teaching of Christ and of the Gospel. In this case, when it is a matter of the message of the Gospel being proclaimed by the Church, what is involved is not the rules as such but these as part of the Christian way of life, a life to be lived under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with the grace of God. The life of the Church, even given its human limitations, cannot be understood without the dimension of the Church as part of the mystery of salvation being taken into account.

            Among a number of Catholics today there probably is an element of Pelagianism, which really never left the Church. What is meant here by Pelagianism is the reliance on the power of human nature alone, unaided by grace, to live the moral Christian life. Christian living requires recognition of human weakness, of the inclination to sin, and of the need of God’s grace. It calls for humility and for prayer to recognise what God’s will is in given circumstances and for the strength to act accordingly. Paul stresses this point again and again, and we would do well today to listen to his voice.

            With regard to dialogue with the world of our own day, with its occasional calls for reform in the Church and such like: the reforms in question at times are in matters relating to Catholic teaching which is considered out of date, not in conformity with perceived values of our day, or with human freedom as perceived in a secular society. In the discussion of such questions, points made above could usefully be borne in mind, centring around the light of the Gospel, the power of the Holy Spirit and of grace.