We know that the events of the gospels took place a long time ago. For us, they are part of a distant history. Our scene is very different than the one Jesus occupied. We have electricity and everything that comes with it. He had only candles for light when the sun went down. There was no such thing as television or telephones or social media. We can know what happens in Rome in an instant. It would have taken weeks for the news of Rome to reach Jesus, and He would have had only word of mouth to rely on for its authenticity. No pictures or film.
Because of these discrepancies, we often feel more like spectator than participant as we read the gospels.
But we also know that the gospels are current. They speak to us about our lives today despite the differences in the world from then until now.
Entering the scene is a method for bridging this distance. By entering the scene, we hope to participate, not just review from the far-off position of historical spectator. We expect that our participation will reinforce the gospel’s currency and inform us how to discern the Will of God for our lives.
What was it like to be a disciple of Jesus? Thomas says in this chapter, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Can you put yourself in his place? Can you be a companion of Jesus, struggling to understand the meaning of the events around you, and yet willing to get up and follow Him even though that following might lead to death?
Can you take the place of Martha and Mary, who both said to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Do you have so much faith in the person of Jesus that you believe anything is possible to Him, including the curing of the seemingly incurable?
Eternal life is central to our creed as Catholics. Even so, can you take the place of Lazarus? Can you imagine what it would be like to wake from the dead, find yourself in a tomb wrapped in burial clothes, and then to be led out only to hear Jesus say, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go?”
We have nothing in the gospels about how Lazarus reacted. We see his sister Mary fall at the feet of Jesus, but what about Lazarus? Did he fall at the feet of Jesus as well? Perhaps he was too dumbfounded to do anything but be led away?
How would you react if Jesus called you out of that tomb?
Do you understand that this is not a hypothetical question? Someday, hopefully, it will be current for you as you are called to eternal life! Can you imagine yourself in that scene?
John Chapter 11, Verses 25-26:
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
When I first read verse 26, I read it like this:
“Whoever lives” and “whoever believes in me” will never die.
Then, after I read it a few times, I began to read it like this:
“Whoever lives in me” and “whoever believes in me” will never die.
It may be a subtle difference, but in the end, it was the difference that gave me my reflection for this chapter.
What does it mean to “live in Jesus?”
How does the action of “living in Jesus” relate to the word resurrection?
What does “living even though he dies” mean? That phrasing does not seem to reference resurrection, but instead “never dying” at all, which is how the wording occurs in the restatement of the idea at the end of the sentence. Is “never dying” the same thing as resurrection, or something else, related to resurrection and yet distinct? If it is distinct, how can someone live and die at the same time?
The relationship between resurrection and life seems to be clear. We know that Jesus died on the Cross, was placed in the tomb, and then rose from that tomb. This is the Resurrection, capital “R.” In this chapter of John, we are also given the story of Lazarus, who died and is called from his tomb by Jesus. These are two instances of resurrection where the defining characteristic seems to be the passage of time. Resurrection is not instantaneous, which seems contrary to the inferences of “living even though he dies” or “never dying” at all.
When Jesus calls Himself “the resurrection and the life,” is He just declaring himself capable of raising Lazarus as a prefiguration of his own Resurrection to come later? Is He referring only to these two incidents? Or is there an expanded meaning to the word resurrection implied here, a meaning related to “never dying” at all?
In the last chapter, we found a deeper meaning to the idea of laying down one’s life. It started with the historical incident of the Crucifixion, but it expanded to encompass Jesus laying down His Divinity and our call to emulate this action by Jesus with the assistance and inspiration of Francis.
Is something similar going on with the historical incident of Jesus’ Resurrection? Is it also something we need to delve into more thoroughly before we can understand the full implications of this gospel teaching?
In the culture that we live in, death is an entirely negative concept. It is something to be avoided at all costs. Few of us can think of death not as an ending, but instead as a transition. We are too distracted from our spiritual lives to be comfortable and sure about the meaning of death.
Thus, death becomes something that is mostly defined by fear.
But as Franciscans, we are called to a different point of view. Our father Francis, at the end of his life, made it clear that he was not afraid of death at all. Francis was so comfortable with his coming bodily death that he embraced it as an opportunity for one last chance to teach. He wrote the final verse of his most famous work, The Canticle of the Creatures, while he was literally on his death bed.
Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whom no one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin. Blessed are those whom death will find in Your most holy will, for the second death shall do them no harm.
Note that Francis is “praising God through death.” No one can escape death, but, nonetheless, it is an occasion not for fear or anger, but for praise. The love that Francis carried through his life for God is not diminished at the end. The faith that was built during his life carries him joyfully to the close, making this expression of praise not only possible, but appropriate.
Given the way he lived his life, no other approach to death by Francis would make sense.
Also note the words “in your most holy will.” It should be safe to assume that one of the reasons that Francis is able to praise God through death is he knows himself to have resided in God’s Will throughout his life. As a result, he feels not afraid, but confident and even blessed. He does not fear his death as an end or a potential condemnation, but instead sees it as an opportunity to move closer to God. He may not know precisely what the next life will entail, but he is looking forward to the transition to that next life because he knows, whatever he finds, that he will be safe from harm because he pursued God’s Will so diligently during his stay on earth.
If Francis had instead written “blessed are those whom death will find living in You,” would the meaning be any different?
Francis is confident about being blessed in death because he knows he has fulfilled the words of Jesus found in the above verses of John. He has “lived in Jesus” because he has devoted himself to the gospel life and thus to following God’s most holy will. Francis reasonably expects to “live even though he dies” and/or to “never die” just as this gospel passage promises.
Living in God, living in Jesus, can be understood to be the same thing as living according to God’s Will. We still need to understand how to do that, but because we know that Francis accomplished this goal, we can be confident that he can show us the way.
It is not something I would ever have expected to do, but I am also going to give you the footnote related to the above passage from Francis of Assisi: Early Documents.
Fulgentius of Rome comments on these verses in his treatise on forgiveness. “Here on earth they are changed by the first resurrection, in which they are enlightened and converted, thus passing from death to life, sinfulness to holiness, unbelief to faith, and evil actions to holy life. For this reason the second death has no power over them….As the first resurrection consists of the conversion of the heart, so the second death consists of unending torment.
I have chosen to do this because the footnote contains the word resurrection twice. The verses from the Canticle themselves do not seem to reference resurrection at all, yet the footnote centers on it.
However, the context of the word resurrection is atypical. It is not focused on the historical act of Jesus rising from the tomb as we might expect. Instead, the context centers on conversion during the time we are living on this earth.
“They are changed by the first resurrection.”
“The first resurrection consists of the conversion of the heart.”
This suggests to us that we should begin looking for the deeper meaning of the gospel passage.
The implication is that the first Resurrection, the Resurrection of Jesus, is not a piece of distant history to be observed from the outside. Instead, it is something internal to us, something that will work within us to “enlighten and convert” us on a day to day basis if we let it. It is, to use the word from the introduction to this chapter, current in our lives.
Jesus’ Resurrection, when it is made present in our prayer lives, is a catalyst for conversion. If you think about it, that makes perfect sense. How could we contemplate the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus and not be changed if we take it seriously?
The footnote describes this conversion centered resurrection as “passing from death to life.” This then hearkens to the ideas of “living even though he dies” and/or to “never dying” from the gospel verses. The further inference is that “passing from death to life” (resurrection) is not a one-time occurrence that happens at the end of our bodily lives but is instead something meant to happen on an ongoing basis.
As Franciscans, the word “ongoing” should set off bells and whistles in our heads. It should remind us immediately of our profession and our commitment to ongoing conversion as part of that profession.
The SFO Rule, in article seven, says this regarding conversion:
…..let them conform their thoughts and deeds to those of Christ by means of that radical interior change which the gospel itself calls “conversion.” Human frailty makes it necessary that this conversion be carried out daily.
The gospel instructs us to “live in Jesus.” Francis instructs us to place ourselves “in God’s most holy will.” The rule, in relation to conversion, tells us to “conform our thoughts and deeds to those of Christ.” All statements of the same concept.
I would just ask you to consider whether it is possible to “conform your thoughts and deeds to those of Christ” if you are not consistently immersed in the gospels?
The answer is, of course, no. This means that the act of “living in Jesus,” the act we are called to in this chapter of John, is at the core of the Franciscan charism. Our rule, in article 4, calls us to go from gospel to life and life to gospel so that Jesus becomes the center of our life. This act of immersion, which leads to conformance and conversion, is what “living in Jesus” is all about and it must be “carried out daily” because of our “frail human nature.”
The daily nature of our need for immersion then fits snugly with the discussion of resurrection and conversion suggested by the footnote. Resurrection is not a single event that happens once at the end of our life if we manage to be good girls and boys. Our sinfulness always leaves us in some lesser or greater state of death. Therefore, we are always in need of resurrection, in need of moving from death to life. The Resurrection of Jesus is a beacon that inspires us to fulfill our ongoing need for continual conversion and resurrection, for a continual movement away from death toward life, away from sin towards the Will of God.
Our Franciscan efforts at continual conversion then translate into a state of ongoing resurrection. When we work at this through gospel immersion, we are fulfilling the instruction from this chapter of John to “live in Jesus.”
It is how we can be alive and dead at the same time. It is how we can ultimately never die at all.
If we acknowledge our frailty as the rule suggests and embrace continual daily conversion, a cycle develops. Our frailty causes us, at times, to swing back toward death. But immersion and conversion take us toward an ongoing resurrection that moves us back toward life again. There is then resurrection on both ends of this definition of conversion. Resurrection both leads to conversion and is the result of conversion. There is a circle at work, conversion and resurrection building on one another.
We may take two steps forward and one step back, but so long as we are always committed to immersion in the gospels, we should be able to stay on a course of conversion and ongoing resurrection that ultimately leads us to the position where, by the end, we can be confident that we have followed in Francis’ footsteps and can praise God as he did as we meet Sister Bodily Death when our individual time comes.
The SFO Rule, in article 19, at the very end of Chapter Two, The Way of Life, speaks directly to this possibility. It says this:
Since they are immersed in the resurrection of Christ, which gives true meaning to Sister Death, let them serenely trend toward the ultimate encounter with the Father.
I did not place the word immersed in the Rule in this location. Nor the word resurrection. I would like to be able to take credit for these words coming together, linking the verses of the Gospel, the Canticle of the Creatures, the footnote and the sections of the rule to each other, but I can’t. Still, there they are, neatly summarizing the entire reflection.
When we immerse ourselves in the gospels, we are immersing ourselves in resurrection not just as we read this Chapter of John or the Passion accounts but in every chapter of every gospel. The entirety of the gospels is an instruction on how to “live in Jesus,” and therefore on how to experience the ongoing conversion and continual resurrection that leads to living while dying and ultimately never dying at all.
This is what Jesus means when He says that He is the Resurrection and the Life. He is not the Resurrection only on the day of Resurrection. His every movement, His every teaching, His entire being is a guide to an ongoing resurrection that leads to continuous conversion away from sin, from death to the continuous Life found when we choose to reside in Him, to follow His Will, and to conform ourselves to Him via the gospels.
Just as in the last chapter, where the meaning behind laying down one’s life was expanded, the same thing happens here with the idea of resurrection. Resurrection is not a single event in history, but instead part of the ongoing process that leads us from death to life at all points in our existence.
For conversion to be possible, we must immerse ourselves in Jesus via the gospels. To the extent that we do so, the door to a life based on ongoing resurrection is opened to us. We “live even though we die” in so much as we practice the cycle of resurrection and conversion rooted in the decision to “live in Jesus.”
That then gives true meaning to Sister Death as the rule suggests, not as an end, but as a loving companion during a lifetime of transition. It is what allowed Francis to praise God as Sister Death approached and what should allow us to do the same. It is what allows us to understand that ongoing conversion gives us the full confidence we need to “serenely trend toward the ultimate encounter with the Father” not just at the end of our lives, but throughout them.
Sometimes words are just inadequate. I have read and reread my reflection many times now and I know that the words I used to describe what I experienced by immersing myself in this gospel chapter are insufficient.
I used the word “death” to describe my state of sinfulness because no other word seems to suffice. The word resurrection describes an event in history, but I have attempted to extend its meaning here to describe something else, no doubt poorly.
I hope this does not lead to confusion. Death and resurrection seem to be straightforward words, but they turn out to be anything but. Somehow, because of the brilliance of Jesus, they have extended meanings which other words in our language struggle to encompass.
In Volume Three of Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, there are two versions of a work called A Mirror of Perfection. The work is based on material from the time of Francis that was discovered in hermitages and residences of the Order in the early 1300s.
Because my words feel so inadequate, I am going to rely on the very end of the second version of this work to summarize this reflection for me. Hopefully, it begins to describe what you and I will experience when our bodily life comes to its end, assuming we manage to “live in Jesus” as we are called to do.
Feel free to reread and answer the questions in the section with the focus verses, but please also pray over the passage below. This is how Sister Death carried Francis to Jesus just after he composed the last verse of the Canticle of the Creatures. We should long to experience the same.
After saying these things, he was carried to Saint Mary’s where, having completed the fortieth year of his life, the twentieth year of perfect penance, in the year of the Lord one thousand, two hundred and twenty-six, on the fourth day before the Nones of October, he passed to the Lord Jesus Christ Whom he loved with his whole heart, with his whole mind, with his whole soul, and with all his strength, with a most burning desire, and with the fullness of affection, following Him most perfectly, hastening swiftly after Him, and, at last, attaining Him most gloriously, Who lives and reigns with the Father and Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.