[A bit long-winded this morning. . .]
5th Sunday of Lent (A)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula
Brothers and sisters, I bring you some dramatic news this morning! While we have been enjoying this weekend's Strawberry Festival, reports have come in from all over the world that the dead walk among us. They've been sighted in all the world's major cities, shambling around dressed like the living, pretending to be the living, doing the ordinary things that the living do. They are difficult to spot since their demeanor is easily confused with those who still cling to life. They go to work, eat their family meals; go to school, church, the grocery store; they even attend festivals, mimicking the behavior of the still-living festival-goers. The media have given these deceased mimic a group name. They are called simply, “The Dead.” If a more specific label is called for, they attach a prefix, “the Irish-American Dead,” or “the Jewish Dead,” or “the Muslim Dead.” Personally, I find these labels unhelpful and rather boring, so I've decided to refer to them as Zombies. So, yes, Zombies walk among us, and more specifically, Catholic Zombies walk among us and pray among us and go to communion among us. In fact, there are probably several right here this morning! Otherwise normal looking, normal sounding Catholics who shamble around in their living bodies without a living spirit. What animates them, what gives them the appearance of being alive is uncertain. What is certain is that they are truly dead, and that their bodies are a walking grave. What can be done for these poor spiritless creatures? They must be freed from what binds them to the grave; freed from the walking death of sin.
In the story of Lazarus' resurrection, we have an abridged version of the Dummies Guide to Catholic Zombies. This handy guide helps us to identify, diagnose, and treat those among us who appear to be alive in Christ but are actually long dead to his spirit. Of note in the Guide is the warning on page 23 that calls our attention to an uncomfortable truth: “The Catholic Zombie virus is virulent and unpredictable. It can infect anyone at anytime. It attacks the Catholic's sin-immunity response system, replicating its viral disobedience-DNA and leaves the spirit of Christ defense network incapable of properly responding to temptation. No one is immune. Even the holiest Catholic is susceptible to infection and re-infection.” As a start to the recovery process, the Guide refers both the infected and their care-givers to John 11.1-45, the story of Lazarus' resurrection, and to Romans 8.8-11, Paul's short treatise on the relationship between the spiritually dead and Christ. These two passages make it clear that the truly living—those who live in Christ, body and soul—live b/c they dwell in the Lord's righteousness, believing wholeheartedly in the Lord when He says to them, “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them. . .Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people!” Working backwards from cure to disease, the Guide reports that those most susceptible to infection by the Catholic Zombie virus are those who allow their Christ defense network to become weakened through inattention to personal prayer, the sacraments, good works, and holy reading. Working from disease to cure, we can see that the best treatment for the Zombie Catholic is personal prayer, the sacraments, good works, and holy reading. In other words, the best treatment is prevention.
To get a better grip on how we can prevent the spread of the Catholic Zombie virus more effectively, let's look at Lazarus' resurrection story and tease out exactly how prevention works. Probably the most obvious tact to take in preventing the spread of the virus is to ensure that everyone around you knows the basics of good spiritual hygiene. For example, when Lazarus' sister, Martha, asserts to her brother's physician, Jesus, that Lazarus would rise again on the last day, Dr. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” After this brief revelation, Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?” She responds, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” So, the first step to prevention is a profession of faith in the Christ, the Son of God. By believing in the Christ, who is the resurrection and the life, we can bolster our resistance to the Catholic Zombie virus and ward off the onslaught of temptations that comes from doubt.
Another step in good spiritual hygiene is obedience to the Christ. The Guide points out that obedience is not a matter of mindless compliance with rules and regulations. Obedience starts by trusting Christ's wisdom and believing in the promises of his Father. Listen first, then act. Lazarus emerges from his tomb after having been dead for four days. Martha, Mary, and the disciples all play essential roles in his resurrection by obeying Christ. Jesus says to the disciples, “Let us go to back to Judea.” And they do. He asks to see Mary. And she runs to him. He asks to see Lazarus. And they take him to the tomb. He orders the tombstone removed. They obey. He cries out, “Lazarus, come out!” And he does. Finally, with the newly resurrected Lazarus standing before him, Jesus says, “Untie him and let him go.” We know that Jesus' intervention here works as prevention b/c John reports, “Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.” Belief in the Christ is the first step in preventing the spread of the zombie virus! With belief comes repentance and with repentance comes the overwhelming mercy of God. Once we have come to depend absolutely on God's mercy, obedience to His Word is not only no longer a burden, it is a privilege—a privilege that inoculates believers against the weaknesses of doubt, anxiety, and pride.
The final step in good spiritual hygiene is hope in the resurrection. The Lazarus story contains a very odd scene. Jesus is informed that Lazarus is sick and on the verge of death, John reports, “. . .when [Jesus] heard that [Lazarus] was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.” His friend is deathly ill and Jesus decides to hang around Bethany for two days. Hardly the reaction we would expect. Later on, Mary chastises Jesus for the delay, saying, “Lord, if you had been here,
my brother would not have died.” The Jews who went with Mary to visit Jesus, upon seeing Jesus weep for the grief of the sisters, say, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” Why did Jesus delay visiting his dying friend? To instill in his disciples the virtue of hope, to bolster in them an immunity to the despair that death often brings. When he first heard that Lazarus was dying, Jesus says, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Lazarus' resurrection from the tomb serves to show the disciples (and us) that death is not an end for the believing soul. The hope of life after death renders the Catholic Zombie virus inert. With a deeply held hope in Christ, we too will hear him order us out of the tomb and tell our family and friends, “Untie him and let him go.”
The Catholic Zombie virus is deadly. It can kill the spirit of Christ in us and leave us to walk among the living and the dead. The best treatment is prevention. Personal prayer, the sacraments, good works, and holy reading. But none of these are effective without a firm belief in the Christ, a willingness to obey his commands, and the good habit of hoping upon the resurrection. If you are dead inside, take heart, b/c the Lord has promised, “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them. . . I will put my spirit in you that you may live. . .thus you shall know that I am the LORD. I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.”
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