Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Homily at Parish Mass, Lent 5 2017

Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-44
On Monday I went to the National Gallery to see their latest exhibition, exploring the collaboration between Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo. One of the highlights is this picture.
It was painted in Rome by Sebastiano, incorporating designs by Michelangelo, around 1517. The picture itself is enormous, nearly four metres high. The title is, of course, “The Raising of Lazarus”. But there is more going on in the picture than that.
Just as there is more going on in the story as John’s Gospel tells it. I think that Sebastiano and Michelangelo have read the Gospel story very attentively, and are trying to portray the multi-character drama that takes place.
Se we see Lazarus, rising from the dead, and Jesus, commanding him to come forth. Then in the middle we have the two other main characters of the drama, Mary kneeling at Jesus’ feet, and Martha, recoiling in horror because all she can think about at this moment is that Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days and is going to stink. 
And around those central four is a great crowd, the Jews who had come to console Mary and Martha. Some are covering their noses because they think the same thing as Martha, there’s going to be a smell. Others are reacting in amazement, astonishment, belief, and worship.
In the background on the left is a group who look official, the Pharisees and priests from the temple, they don’t look so impressed – after this episode they will plot to kill not only Jesus, but Lazarus as well. And they are standing on the road to Jerusalem, where Jesus will die – except it’s not Jerusalem but Rome, where this picture was painted, what we can see are the ruins on the Palatine Hill, the old centre of Imperial power.
There’s a lot going on, and the eye is drawn backwards and forwards along this arc of movement, as though you’re watching someone on a swing. But that movement tends to draw us towards the middle. And this is why I think Sebastiano and Michelangelo had read the gospel story very carefully.
They have seen something important in the story that we might miss. Our modern western minds are used to reading stories in a linear way. There is a beginning, a sequence of events and an end. A story has one direction, and the end is what matters.
But stories often have more than one dimension. And this is especially so in John’s Gospel. As well as a beginning and an end, John makes much use of thematic symmetry – events in the narrative are paired in a symmetrical way around a central event. We still read the story from beginning to end, but at the same time are drawn into the centre, which discloses another dimension and depth of meaning.
At the symmetrical centre of the story of Lazarus is what happens to Mary: “Martha… went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.”
Mary had stayed at home when Jesus came. She is a living image of dead Lazarus in his tomb, trapped inside in hopeless grief. But when the word of Jesus comes to her, she gets up quickly and goes to him, just as Lazarus will do from his tomb.
And look at who is in the centre of the picture: it’s Mary. She is kneeling, but rising up in a sudden movement. Hope and belief are dawning on her face. And she is looking not at Lazarus but at Jesus.
The story of the raising of Lazarus has this deep centre where we see that it is not just about Lazarus, but about the raising of Mary, and all the disciples whom she represents. The raising of Lazarus demonstrates that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. But it is by believing in Jesus and looking to him that all the disciples will experience resurrection.
This is the “life from above” that John’s Gospel tells us about so often, the life that Jesus talked about to Nicodemus and to the woman at the well. The raising of Lazarus is a sign of that life into which Jesus calls all his disciples, then and now. And it is Mary, in the centre of this picture as she is in the centre of the story, who shows us that life, looking to Jesus, rising up in hope and belief.
In the story, as in the picture, everything changes. A whole community is transformed by the knowledge that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Mary makes the transition, from a life bounded and closed in by death, to the sudden joyful dawning of the life of God in whom there is no death.
Sebastiano and Michelangelo have understood this. In setting this scene in the Rome of their own day they show that the message of resurrection is for disciples of Jesus in every place and time. As it is for us. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He is in himself the life that the Father lives, eternal life, in which there is no death. And he is the way, the truth and the life. He opens the deathless life of the Father to all who believe in him.
Imagine this scene, then, not in Bethany in the 1st Century or in Rome on the 16th, but in London, today. Let us imagine ourselves into this story, as Michelangelo and Sebastiano did. Imagine Jesus coming into our community, saying “I am the resurrection and the life”. And imagine how that changes everything. And so, in twos or threes, if you will, could you discuss what this says to you. The pointers for discussion on the news sheet may be helpful, but if something else speaks to you, talk about that. And we can feed back afterwards over coffee.
    How does knowing Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life, make a difference to our lives?

•    How can we live and what can we do, both as individuals and as a church, so that the people around us can be changed by that knowledge, too?

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