Homily for April 6, 2014: 5th Sunday of Lent

Several days ago, we got a glimpse of the papacy that made history—something that was both surprising and beautiful.

After leading a televised penance service at St. Peter’s, Pope Francis walked down a side aisle to begin hearing confessions. He passed an open confessional, with a priest quietly waiting inside, and got an idea. He paused and changed course.  Cameras caught the pontiff walking up to the priest, and then kneeling before him.  Thousands in St. Peter’s, and millions around the world, saw a pope do something they had never seen a pope do before.

He went to confession.

As he has done so often, Francis was teaching by doing.

Like countless others around the world, he knelt before a confessor to utter the words, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned.”

In that moment, he united himself with all of us.

He bound himself to the Body of Christ—all of us sinners through the centuries who have needed God’s mercy and forgiveness and sought the grace of absolution.

And in that moment, too, I think he united himself to someone else.

He linked himself to Lazarus.

Let me explain.

This gospel comes at a meaningful moment. It is our last Sunday gospel before Holy Week. Next week, Palm Sunday, we’ll hear once again the reading of the Passion.

But today, in a powerful juxtaposition, we find ourselves reminded of where we were nearly 40 days ago, at the beginning of Lent.

On Ash Wednesday, we wore ashes and heard the words, “You are dust and to dust you will return.”  We confronted our mortality, our finality. We became, in effect, The Walking Dead.

Today, we confront it again: the gospel places us at the doorway of an open tomb.

But we aren’t just spectators.

In so many ways, the person in the tomb is us. 

We are Lazarus.  And Lazarus is us.

As much as this gospel is about death, it is also about life. And it is about a second life.

It is a story of second chances.

This episode, of course, looks ahead to Christ’s own resurrection, and the feast we will celebrate in two weeks.  I think it also presents us with a powerful reminder during these last days of Lent, this time of prayer and sacrifice and ongoing conversion.

It says: God gives us another chance. It comes to us in the sacrament of reconciliation.

The fact is, I am Lazarus. So are you.  So are all of us. We are entombed by our sin. We are bound by our own petty weaknesses, bandages that hold us back.  Jesus weeps for us the way he wept for Lazarus.

And to each of us he calls, “Come out!”

Even when we think we are too far gone, that there is no going back…there is. We can leave the tomb.

We can start anew.  The bandages can come off. We can go free. We can leave darkness and stumble, blinking, into the light, following the call of Christ.

When Pope Francis seized his chance to go to confession, he embraced his own Lazarus. And as Jesus did at the Last Supper, the pope essentially said to the world, “I have given you a model to follow.”

We should follow. And as we heard from the prophet on Ash Wednesday: now is an acceptable time. A time to be reconciled with God.

If you haven’t been to confession in a while—and I raise my hand here, guilty as charged—now is the time to go.  Now in these last days of penance and prayer, as we turn our eyes toward Jerusalem and Calvary, we need to remember in a powerful and personal way just what that overpowering sacrifice was all about.

It was about our salvation, our redemption.

It was about Christ giving all of us, like Lazarus, a second chance.

We are blessed to offer the sacrament of reconciliation here in this church six days a week, just before the 12:05 Mass.  If you’re in Manhattan during the week, one of my favorite places to go is St. Francis of Assisi, on 32nd Street, near Penn Station. They have Franciscan friars hearing confessions all day long. They’re popular, too; there’s almost always a line. I like them because they aren’t scary.  Many years ago, after I’d been away from the sacrament for several years, I went there for confession and when I told the friar how long it had been since my last confession, he said very gently, and very simply, “Welcome back.”

Those were the most beautiful words I’d ever heard.

Christ, who calls to us “Come out” is also yearning to say to each of us, “Welcome back.”

So, use these last days of Lent to answer his call, to begin again. Take time to prayerfully ask the question: what is my tomb? What is holding me back from answering Christ’s call?

There is no better time than now to answer it. 

By the grace of this sacrament, we can be reconciled with God.

We all can be, like Lazarus, reborn.


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