From Tragedy to Glory

Douglas McManaman
Homily: 5th Sunday of Lent
March 26, 2023
Reproduced with Permission

This gospel reading, the raising of Lazarus, is so important, because it reveals Christ's power over death. Only God has the power to open the grave, as we read in the first reading from Ezekiel: "Thus says the Lord God: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them" (Ez 37, 12). Jesus opens the grave of Lazarus and has him rise from it. In other words, Jesus is God. He is divine. And this miracle announces what is to come, namely, Jesus' own resurrection. Lazarus, although he rises from the dead, will also die again, so this is not a complete victory over death. That will take place on Easter Sunday, when Jesus rises from the dead, never to die again. And that is the good news of the gospel: the resurrection. Death has been defeated.

This is such an important point to grasp. There is so much suffering in this world, so many people whose lives are beset by a tragedy of one sort or another. And tragedy, which has many different origins, is always connected in some way with death. At the root of tragedy is often human error, or incompetence, or worse, human sinfulness and malice. Sometimes the root of tragedy is not human error or sin at all, but the course of nature. Nature's disasters, however, often lead to human loss and death, and so they are designated as tragedies-without human loss, we would not refer to such events as tragedies.

But tragedies rooted in human error are more difficult to deal with, and these are tragedies which often are in turn rooted in human sin, such as laziness or overconfidence or arrogance-think of the sinking of the Titanic. But then there are tragedies that are simply rooted in malice, such as the senseless murder of a loved one, a life cut short. Parents can suffer such loss, the loss of a child for example. Such tragedies leave wounds that stay with them throughout their lives, and their lives are practically defined from that point onwards by that very tragedy.

But here is the point. The word gospel means 'good news', and the good news has gravitas. It is weighty and has real consequence. Christ's death destroyed death. The good news is that Christ has power over death; he conquered death. If we really believe this, then it is the case that whatever tragedy has befallen us, it need not define our very existence. It no longer has the power to crush and deprive us of light and hope. We can allow it to crush our lives and redefine our entire existence, shrouding our lives in darkness, if we so choose. But because Jesus rose from the dead, and because he raised Lazarus, not to mention a twelve-year-old girl and the son of the widow, it need not do so. Death does not have the final word over our lives. Resurrection does.

All those whom we have loved and who have died, some even in the most tragic circumstances, we will see and touch them again. The resurrection was for us. The Second Person of the Trinity joined a human nature to himself, uniting himself to every human person, as it were; he died and rose in our humanity, joined to his divinity. If we live our lives in him and die in him, he will raise us up as well: "For if we have been united with Him in a death like his, we shall also be united with him in his resurrection" (Rom 6, 5).

And that is why those who have suffered a terrible tragedy as a result of the sinfulness and malice of another person are able, in time, to forgive that person, because they know, through faith, that tragedy is relative. That is what Christ's death and resurrection has accomplished: he has reduced tragedy from the absolute to the relative. The crucifix, once a symbol of horror, has become a symbol of power, victory, and glory. Death is no longer absolute and final. And so despair is no longer absolute and final, but relative and temporary.

Those who have no faith in the resurrection of Christ, who do not live out of that faith, will be unable to rise above the tragedy that besets them, and so they are hardened and imprisoned in unforgiveness. But the power of the risen life of Christ is revealed in those who choose to believe in him and in the one who sent him, and they will not allow tragedy to imprison them in the darkness of perpetual resentment and unforgiveness. These are the people who know the risen Christ, whose lives have been illuminated by the hope of resurrection, by the good news of Christ's victory over tragedy, sin, and death.