The purpose of the Lenten readings is to prepare for the participation in the paschal feast.
The Old Testament readings focus upon salvation history as the presupposition of, preparation for, and in some respects a prefiguring of, the redemptive act of God in Christ.
The second readings set forth our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ through baptism and in the Christian life.
The gospel readings of series A, after the accounts of the temptation and the transfiguration, which are traditional on the first two Sundays, take up the great Johannine signs, which are prefigurements both of the saving events of Christ’s death and resurrection and of our participation in those saving events through baptism.
The three readings of this Sunday fit together beautifully, for all concern the resurrection to newness of life. The passage from Ezekiel concludes and interprets the vision of the valley of dry bones (obviously a battlefield) that are gradually restored to life. The interpretation identifies the bones with Israel in exile, and the resurrection of the bones with Israel’s restoration to its homeland after the Babylonian exile.
However, it is interesting to note how the text shifts from the dry bones to graves: “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves.” This shift suggests that already by Ezekiel’s time (see Isa 26:19) the expectation of a general resurrection at the last day was beginning to emerge, an expectation that was to be developed in later apocalyptic literature.
But that is not the point here. Rather, the language of this future hope is transferred to Israel’s return from exile. It will be like resurrection from the grave. In this figurative resurrection God will bring God’s people to newness of life and put God’s Spirit within them.
These twin themes—the restoration of God’s people and the eschatological resurrection of the dead—thus start hand in hand as they will continue through apocalyptic literature to the New Testament.
The juxtaposition of two passages of Scripture often brings out new meanings in them. This is what happens here.
Usually one thinks of the De profundis as a penitential psalm, but when it is placed side by side with Ezekiel’s vision, it acquires a new emphasis: it is both the cry of the individual in the depths of sin and death and also the cry of the people of God (note the shift at the end of the third through the fourth stanza from the individual to the community) for restoration from exile in the land of darkness and the shadow of death.
This hoped-for corporate redemption occurred in Israel’s restoration from exile. It is still the hope of the Christian community in which the Spirit dwells, and it is to be finally fulfilled in the general resurrection from the dead.
The same two-level use of language is continued in this reading. The first level, that of resurrection from the dead, is now applied to Christ. God raised Jesus from the dead by his Spirit (see Rom 1:4). Now Christians, through their baptism, have received the indwelling of the Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead: “the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”
This is the second level—the restoration of the people of God to newness of life (note the words “because of righteousness”; as we saw on the third Sunday of Lent, the new life created by the indwelling Spirit is the effect of justification).
Finally, the first level of resurrection is still expected by Christians, too: “he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies.” The risen life of the church in the Spirit is an anticipation of the general resurrection at the last day.
The biblical hope is not a belief in the intrinsic immortality of the person, as though there were some part of us, such as the soul or the spirit that is in and by itself immortal. The whole person—body, soul, and spirit—is subject to decay and death.
But Christ has broken this subjection; he has burst the bonds of decay and death by his resurrection from the dead, in which he was raised to a totally transformed existence.
Through baptism believers have received the indwelling Spirit, as a result of which resurrection and renewal of the whole person, body and soul, has been initiated.
True, even the bodies of Christians are still subject to sickness, decay, and death. But the indwelling Spirit is a sign in our mortal bodies that betokens the beginning of a new life that cannot be destroyed by death.
This, as Oscar Cullmann has suggested, is manifested in two ways: in the daily renewal of our inward self (2 Cor 4:16; cf. Eph 3:16) and in the occurrence of miracles of healing in the bodies of Christians.
The present indwelling of the Spirit is an anticipation (of) the complete renewal of life that will come at the general resurrection.
Here again the evangelist has combined a narrative from his source, which consisted of seven miracle stories, with a body of discourse material. In the original source, the raising of Lazarus would have been a straightforward story of a resuscitation. Similar stories are the raising of Jairus’ daughter and of the son of the widow of Naim.
But note the progression of the miraculous: Jairus’ daughter had just died; the widow’s son was being carried to the grave, so he must have died earlier that day, for Jewish Law required interment within twenty-four hours; but Lazarus had been dead for four days already.
The evangelist has placed the raising of Lazarus at a crucial point in Jesus’ career. It occasions his final journey to Judea and Jerusalem, and the sensation created by Lazarus’ resuscitation sets in motion the events that will lead to the Crucifixion.
Contrast this with the Synoptic accounts, where the cleansing of the Temple leads to the Sanhedrin’s decision to get rid of Jesus. One should not try to harmonize the accounts. The Synoptic accounts look closer to history, and in John’s source the cleansing of the temple, now transferred for programmatic reasons to chapter 2, was probably in a similar position.
The evangelist has also placed the story of Lazarus here for theological reasons. Jesus goes to his death as the one who is the resurrection and the life and who will die to inaugurate the resurrection of all. The theological interpretation is brought out by the dialogue and discourse material with which the evangelist framed the story itself.
Therefore, the high point of this Gospel is the great pronouncement of verses 25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me willl never die.”
This serves the same function as “I am the light of the world” in the healing of the blind man in chapter 8.
The short form of the Gospel prunes away some of the dialogue material, the preliminary discussion between Jesus and his disciples (Jn 11:8-16), and some of the narrative detail (Jn 11:18-19, 28-32a), and in so doing throws the central pronouncement into sharper relief.