Today, Catholic Christians celebrate the Fifth Sunday of Lent.
When we met last week, we heard how Jesus brought sight to a man who had been blind since birth, and this week, we hear how Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead.
One of the very important things to remember when reading the Gospel according to John, as we have been doing for the last two Sundays, is that John writes very deliberately and uses many symbols. For example, John wants us to know that bringing sight to the blind man was truly a miracle, not a fluke. Therefore, he made sure we knew this man had been blind since birth, not someone recently or temporarily blind. And today, John wants us to know that Lazarus was dead – very dead – when he tells us he had been in the tomb for four days.
Now we know that death and dying are concepts that many people try to avoid or shy away from. That is why so many people do not make responsible plans for after they are gone. For example, many don’t have life insurance to cover the cost of their funeral and other expenses and the ongoing support of their survivors.
The fear of death is as old as humanity itself most likely. However, things surrounding death and dying have often led to ghost stories that have thrilled children and adults for centuries.
Some of these stories, though usually fiction, have their basis in fact. In the beginning of the Eighteenth Century, for example, Edinburgh, Scotland had become a center for the study of anatomy. Because physicians and students needed corpses to dissect and study, and because there were not enough corpses to meet the demand, there arose in Ireland and Scotland a group of grave robbers called the “resurrectionists.” They would dig up bodies of the newly deceased and sell them, and sometimes they would simply dig them up to remove any jewelry they found.
In the following resurrectionist story, we hear how one man and woman had a most unusual and dramatic introduction to death and dying.
In 18th Century Lurgan, Ireland, Dr. John McCall’s wife Marjorie fell ill with fever and died shortly thereafter. Marjorie had an expensive gold wedding ring – but at her death, neither John nor any other mourner was able to remove it from her swollen finger. Due to fear that her fever would spread, the people hastily buried Marjorie in Shankill Cemetery, and news of the doctor’s dead wife spread throughout neighborhood.
After the mourners had left the cemetery, some grave robbers got busy digging up Marjorie’s coffin. When they pried open the lid, they were delighted to find that yes, indeed, the valuable ring was still on her finger. Although they tried as hard as they could, they were not able not pull the ring off her finger. Therefore, they decided to saw off the whole finger. As the sharp blade cut into her skin, Marjorie came back to life, sat upright in her coffin, and shrieked like a banshee!
Needless to say, the grave robbers were startled out of their wits and fled the scene. Marjorie was left alone to climb out of her grave and wander home.
Across town, her widower, Dr. John, was boozing with some relatives, sorrowful at the loss of his wife, but also celebrating his newfound bachelorhood. When he heard a gentle rapping on his chamber door, he opened it to find his dead wife, extra creepy and all wraithlike in her burial robes and bloody from the saw-to-the-finger ordeal. The shock was too much for the physician. He instantly had a massive heart attack, dropped dead on the floor, and was buried in the grave Marjorie had just vacated.
Well, you and I most likely won’t have such a dramatic and wild journey to the next life, but we will eventually leave our bodies and go to our eternal home. It would be good, therefore, to be prepared, for this is what Jesus told us, “So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Matthew 24: 44). To be prepared, we need to keep a few things in mind.
First, keep your sights on heaven. Remember that there is nothing in this world that we can take with us to heaven. As we read in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” (Ecclesiastes 1: 2). In this passage, the word “vanity” means “meaningless.” In other words, don’t get caught up in materialism, falling in love with things of this world, for they have no value.
Second, keep your souls prepared for the afterlife. We do this by praying each day, living our vocations to the best of our ability, and following the triple-love commandment of Jesus: to love God, to love our neighbor, and to love our self.
And third, take practical steps to prepare for your own death. This piece advice applies only to adults. For example, we should have a will, a living will, health care power of attorney for finances and other life issues, advanced directives in case we are incapacitated and can’t make decisions, and the like. Responsible adults – especially those with young children – also have term life insurance. This very affordable insurance will provide for one’s survivors. Some in our parish have also made arrangements for their funerals and burials or cremations, so that when they die, their loved ones won’t be saddled with lots of decisions.
As we continue our life journeys this week, it would be a good idea to reflect on our own mortality. How are we preparing for our entry into the next life?
And that is the good news I have for you on this Fifth Sunday of Lent, 2017.
Story source: James Gracey, “The Living Dead in Lurgan,” BBC Homepage, Northern Ireland,
October 16, 2014.