Six days before the Passover—that particular Passover that would forever change the course of human destiny—Jesus decided to relax a bit and enjoy a supper at the home of his friends—one of whom had died not long before, but who was now sitting with Him at table, also enjoying his supper. We are entering a time of the celebration of the greatest mysteries of our faith, of our salvation, and so we should expect to be immersed in wonders. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, manifesting that as the Son of God, life and death are in his hands. So if He can raise Lazarus, He can raise us too—but in a much more glorious way. Lazarus had to die again, but when Jesus raises us from the dead, we will live forever in the glory of his Kingdom. Jesus was also giving a sign (miracles are called “signs” in John’s Gospel), a confirmation of his words about his own death and resurrection: “I have power to lay down [my life], and I have power to take it up again.”
The raising of Lazarus is one of the climax points in the Gospel of John. For one thing, it is the turning point after which all our attention is focused on the imminent Passion. There are no more miracles in the Gospel after this. Once Lazarus was raised, the hearts of the chief priests and Pharisees were definitively hardened against Jesus, and the arrangements would soon be made for his arrest and condemnation. But there is another reason that this is a climax point. John’s Gospel as a whole is about the manifestation, the revelation of the glory of God in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son. In a very striking way, the raising of Lazarus opened the eyes of all people of good will to the glory of God. At the entrance of the tomb, when Martha objected to its opening, Jesus uttered a cry which is not only a key to the understanding of John’s Gospel, but also (for me anyway) one of the most powerful utterances in the Scriptures: “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” (11:40).
Believe and see the glory of God: this is also a key to entering the profound meaning and experience of the Passion and Resurrection narratives, and a key to the whole of Christian faith. On this Palm Sunday we are to believe and see God’s glory in Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, was one who believed and saw his glory. This glory is not, for the most part, a blinding radiance perceptible to the bodily eyes. It is a spiritual perception granted through faith and love, an awareness of who Christ really is, and an ability to recognize in all He says and does the wisdom and power of God. Mary, recognizing the glory of God in Him, placed an act of love and humility—which Jesus described as a prophetic act, a symbolic preparation for his burial—as she anointed his feet with costly oil and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the oil, says the Gospel, and it was also filled with the spiritual fragrance of both divine and human love. Unfortunately there was another odor in the house, and it was not a pleasant one. Judas objected to Mary’s loving extravagance, protesting that the poor could have benefited from the money wasted on expensive oils. John comments that this was just a ruse. Judas would have liked to have received the money as a donation from Mary, so he could spend it on himself, for, as John tells his readers, Judas, the community treasurer, was a thief.
Thus, in this atmosphere of both love and treachery, and of joyful exultation and bitter vindictiveness (which were the two responses to Lazarus’ return from the dead)—this ambivalent atmosphere which so characterizes the whole human condition—Jesus left the house to move resolutely toward his Passion. John said earlier in his Gospel that Jesus had no illusions about the nature of man, of the human heart, knowing full well what lay within. So He wasn’t deterred from his mission by the adulation of the crowds on that first Palm Sunday. He entered the city acclaimed as a King, and rightly so, but He didn’t allow this passing praise to make Him think that perhaps He wouldn’t have to suffer and die after all. For, as He would later tell Pilate, his Kingdom is not of this world, so He is not interested in being made an earthly king. Some time earlier He actually fled when the people wanted to declare Him king. But there was no fleeing now, for a prophet can only die in Jerusalem, as He said, and He knew He was riding straight into the jaws of death. If only we could know his thoughts as He slowly rode into the holy city…
In the film “The Passion of the Christ,” there is a flashback to the entry into Jerusalem—as Jesus is exiting Jerusalem, carrying the cross. He remembers how a few days ago they were waving palm branches and singing his praises, but soon after that they were spitting on Him and reviling Him, pushing and kicking Him as He fell under the crushing weight of the cross of our sins. Yes, He needed no one to instruct Him on the unstable and treacherous nature of the human heart.
The Pharisees, says St John, were highly distraught as Jesus entered the city to the sound of universal acclamation. “What can we do?” they cried in dismay. “The world has gone after him!” They needn’t have been so worried. The world goes after many idols and phantoms and dead ends, and its opinions are easily swayed or bribed. What the Pharisees should really have been concerned about—and after Pentecost they were concerned about this—was not the superficial hero-worship of a fickle crowd, but the determined fidelity of a small group of dedicated followers who were willing even to die for Jesus. It is these who will turn the world upside down, not the mindless and uncommitted masses.
We have to find our own place in the events of these days we are celebrating. At the tomb of Lazarus, are we among those whose faith is strong enough so as to enable us to see the glory of God in Jesus, or are we among those who become dismayed because his ways are not our ways, because He does things that upset our own plans or desires? In the home of Mary and Martha, would we be like her who humbled herself to make a public and extravagant act of love and devotion to her Lord, or would we be like him who grumbled about it, wishing he could gain some personal benefit, yet at the same time putting on a phony act of care for the needy?
(Contrary to what some people think, Jesus was not disparaging the poor, or exalting Himself, when He said, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have Me.” This was an indirect reproach to Judas: “You, who say you care for the poor, have had many opportunities to help them, but you did not, because of your selfishness. But now you have a chance, and one chance only, to minister to Me, who alone can heal your avarice and forgive your sins. You have Me now, and only for a short time; abandon your pretense of love for the poor and repent in earnest; you will die in your sins unless you come to believe that I AM.”)
On the road to Jerusalem, how shall we receive Him? On Palm Sunday we hold palm branches and sing “Hosanna in the highest”—just like the ones who called for his crucifixion a few days later. Are we going to crucify Him by returning to our sins once this celebration is over? Or are we going to follow Him all the way to the Cross, standing with Mary and John, professing our love and fidelity to Him?
Palm Sunday is a feast day; we are called to rejoice, to welcome our Savior into our church and into our hearts. On Monday we begin the great and holy week of our Lord’s Passion. Let us embrace the Cross with the same zeal with which we eat and drink and celebrate a feast. The Lord has enough fair-weather friends in the world, enough of those who show up for feasts and then leave Him alone when He is hanging naked and scourged on the Cross. Our share in the sweetness of the resurrection will be proportioned to our share in the bitterness of the passion. So let us go the whole way—the joy, the sorrow, the agony, the ecstasy—for only in this way will our faith mature, our spiritual perception and awareness be sharpened. Let us abandon all wavering and embrace Him wholeheartedly in faith. For Jesus told us that if only we would believe—really believe—we would see the glory of God.