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One of the main characteristics of the gospel of John is his way of narrating an encounter between (a)person(s) and Jesus where in their conversation the respondent(s) speak on one plane and He on another. This was the case in the Nicodemus episode (being born “again”), the Samaritan woman (”water”), the man born blind (”sight”), in today’s gospel, the raising of Lazarus (”death”, “life”, 11:1-45) and in many others.
The verb “apothnēskō” ( ἀποθνἡσκω ), in its compound form or not, with its noun and adjective cognates, generally means physically to die or be dead or perish, applicable both to animals and peoples. In the case of Lazarus, the true state of death is emphasized; he is not simply in a comatose state, thus the delay of Jesus (vv6), arriving four days later (v17, 39), and with the burial stone set (v38).
Regarding the two levels of understanding, Lazarus’ death has symbolic significance, a visible “sign” by which God’s power will be made manifest (v4); the mention of Judea (v7) points to his own death; the disciples’ eventual martyrdom is implied in their desire to join Jesus (v16); the lack of comprehension shown in the first response of Martha regarding the resurrection (v23f) and in Mary’s regret as well (v32). Thus in this episode and even earlier before this sign, Jesus continually lifts his hearer’s understanding to a higher faith level. Here the power of God is presented at work in Christ, a power that overcomes death at all levels. This is the glory of God (vv40, 42).
The raising to life of Lazarus from death is a sign of Christian resurrection both realized and future made possible by the life-giving power of the risen Jesus whose claims are to be accepted in faith. No one comes to eternal life and resurrection without faith. So with Martha (v27), let us renew our faith in Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of God (cf1:1-14) who came into the world to save us” (cf 3:16, 31-36). And let us be reminded always by the preface of the funeral mass that goes “in death life is changed not taken away”. Death is a transition not a terminal experience. Meanwhile let us continue living that life in God we already share since our baptism by dying to sin. Amen.