Upon hearing that his friend Lazarus is seriously ill, Jesus declares This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God. Last Sunday, we heard something similar when Jesus encountered the man who was born blind. His blindness was so that the works of God might be made visible through him. It seems like whenever he is confronted with a bad thing, Jesus relishes it in a way that, on a strictly human level, seems insensitive to the very real human suffering that’s taking place. Upon hearing that Lazarus is ill, Jesus stayed for two more days in the place where he was (across the Jordan, probably at least 20 miles from Bethany).
Notice Jesus’ words carefully: This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God. He knows full well the miracle that he is about to perform. He doesn’t promise that “this illness will not involve death” but rather that it will not end in death. Lazarus does indeed die. When Jesus finally arrives, Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. In the divine plan, Lazarus has to have died for Jesus to summon him from the tomb. The blind man has to have been blind for Jesus to restore his sight. The wine has to have run out before Jesus can create it anew. Why? Perhaps because what Jesus wants to offer us is not simply by way of adding more to what we already have: taking our vision and giving us slightly greater acuity; taking our wine and aging it a little more; taking our illnesses and making us immune to future infection. Jesus wants to begin anew in us. During most of Lent, save for a few feast days that break up the routine, we don’t sing the great angelic hymn, Glory to God in the highest. Perhaps this is another reminder, liturgical in its nature, that the desolation we feel when God’s glory is absent (or better: imperceptible) is precisely the context into which it will come. As I like to say, context is everything. The next time those words will be sung will be at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. My heart is breaking to think we will not be together for this. On that evening, we recall Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the sacred priesthood, and the Lord’s example of self-giving love in washing his disciples’ feet. Everything signified in this liturgy is the reason I am a priest.
Still, together or apart, near or far, I trust that God’s glory will break in where it has seemed so absent.
But I digress....
Back to Lazarus, because today, his death is the context for God’s glory to be revealed. First, we should consider what “glory” is in the first place, because it’s one of those peculiar religious words that is rarely ever defined. Aquinas says, “the word 'glory' properly denotes the display of something as regards its seeming comely, or beautiful, in the sight of human beings.” When we speak of God’s glory, we’re speaking of who God is, but also how God reveals this to us. In most of the Bible, this glory is spoken about far more often than it is actually seen by anyone. A few people get brief glimpses of it: for example, Moses (Exodus 33:18-23); Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-8); Peter, James, & John (2 Peter 1:16-18).
Lazarus’ death and his coming back to life are for the glory of God, Jesus says. And this, for a couple reasons. First, because the miracle itself is fascinating. Today’s gospel tells us that many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him. The miracle of the raising of Lazarus manifests God’s glory. As St. Irenaeus says, “Gloria enim Dei vivens homo.” The glory of God is the living man. Lazarus, the once-dead, now-living man, by his very existence, glorifies God. Indeed, the chief priests also plot to kill Lazarus, the living man, the manifestation of God’s glory, because that glory is infectious. Second, and more importantly, this miracle quickly sets the stage for Jesus’ Passion. The adversaries of Jesus immediately launch a plan to put him to death. The final section of John’s gospel which ensues, beginning with Chapter 13, is often called the “Book of Glory,” because it is there, at the Last Supper, in the Garden of Gethsemane, on Calvary, and at the tomb, and in the upper room, where God’s glory is so perfectly revealed.