What This Lent’s Providential Doubleheader of Life Feasts Reminds Us
‘I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse’ (Deuteronomy 30:19)
In case you didn’t notice, last weekend brought together two feasts: the Solemnity of the Annunciation on Saturday and the Fifth Sunday of Lent. While their proximity on the calendar might be coincidence, their theological message absolutely is not. Long before Pope St. John Paul II started talking about “the culture of life” and the “culture of death,” that was the message of those two feasts.
The Annunciation commemorates the visit of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary of Nazareth, who is asked and accepts to become the Mother of God, resulting in the conception of Jesus. Nine months separate the Annunciation last Saturday from Christmas. The Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Lent speaks of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
Sunday’s Gospel ends at John 11:45. It concludes on an optimistic note: “Many of the Jews who had … seen what Jesus had done began to believe in him.” But what follows is also relevant to understanding this scene, but the Church won’t read that part of the Gospel until next Saturday, April 1.
As more and more people start to believe in Jesus, the Sanhedrin worries more and more about the consequences. “If we leave him alone, all will believe in him and the Romans will come and take away both our land our nation” (11:48). Caiaphas then proposes his utilitarian principle that would have made the posters at every lynching: “It is better … that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish” (vv. 49-50). John sums up the reaction tersely: “So from that day on they planned to kill him” (v. 53).
As a consequence of restoring Lazarus’ life, they planned to kill Jesus.
Life — both supernatural and natural — is God’s greatest gift. For that reason, it elicits the devil’s greatest opposition. That idea will also be picked up during the weekday Gospels this week, which are drawn mostly from John 8. Jesus’ preaching again elicits the Pharisees’ attempted stoning of him, which Jesus points to as evidence of the filial relationship to their “father.” The Pharisees retort that their father is Abraham. The Gospel readings this week are curated to cite Jesus correcting them: “But now you are trying to kill me. ... Abraham did not do this. You are doing the works of your father” (8:40-41). What is omitted is the next part, in which Jesus makes clear that those deeds confirm their paternity, a paternity not Abrahamic but diabolic: “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning …” (8:44).
A week away from Holy Week and we can sense Satan’s lurking, roaming and prowling behind these scenes, the ancient serpent slithering into the minds of men, tempting them to become killers like him. Something he still continues doing today.
As a result of her being “the handmaid of the Lord,” Mary becomes the Mother of God. Right then and there. Nine months from March 25 is Dec. 25.
Yet we still have folks — including some Christian “pastors” and “ministers” — who think they can square the circle of supporting abortion but bearing the Name.
Two questions about March 25:
- Do you believe that as of the Annunciation, Jesus’ human life began?
- Do you believe that it would have been right for Mary to abort Jesus?
These are not complicated questions. Nor are their answers unconsidered in the Christian tradition. Anything but a “yes” and a “no” should make one ask: How dare I call myself a follower of him whose life I would not defend?
By raising Lazarus, Jesus gave the clearest witness to date of whom he is. (I say “to date” because he will give the ultimate witness in two weeks, on Easter Sunday morning.) And that witness is what seals his fate. His giving life results in the elite of his day deciding he should die. Everything else in the next two weeks are just the details: the die is cast.
It’s just like, by giving sight to the man born blind, the elite close their eyes even more tightly to him and his teaching. But there is none so blind as he who just won’t see.
Let’s not imagine these are just historical events that happened around Jerusalem almost 2,000 years ago. They are happening today.
When God gives life (and nobody else but God can give any life), we decide this life is unwanted, inconvenient, undesired, in conflict with my plans and dreams.
When God gives life to two people who have engaged in an act that most of them at least momentarily pretended expresses their love, their faith suddenly evaporates amidst their resentment as they look for that gift’s return policy.
When Roe was at least partially reversed last summer, the reaction was violent, furious, even murderous. How else does one characterize cowardly arson against places where diapers, formula and care are handed out freely to women who want to bear their children? How else does one describe an attempt to assassinate a Supreme Court justice just for being in the Dobbs majority?
St. John Paul II put his finger on this even before he became pope and wrote in Evangelium vitae about the opposition between the “culture of life” and “the culture of death.” He identified it when, as Cardinal Wojtyła, he preached the 1976 Lenten retreat for Pope Paul VI:
One has only to recall how Church teaching such as the Encyclical Humanae vitae or the latest Declaration by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Personae humanae [sic], were contested. These examples are enough to bring home the fact that we are in the front line in a lively battle for the dignity of man (Sign of Contradiction, 2021 Cluny Media edition, p. 129, emphasis mine).
That battle is not some contemporary “culture war” stoked by “right-wing extremists” nor by ecclesiastical reactionaries diverting the Church’s attention from “justice” issues. This justice issue may be the current instantiation of the battle, but the war goes way, way, way back, to the reaction to a man freed from the bonds of burial wraps and death. Arguably to a false promise to “be like gods” (or at least lords and givers of life) immune from death, only to result in death’s pandemic and human complicity in its spread.