There’s a scene in the 1988 film ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ which I always think of when I read the Lazarus story. It was a much criticised film at the time, mostly by people who had never seen it. And it did have its faults. For one thing, it was half-an-hour too long. But its central message was wonderful.
I showed it to a group of priests once during a retreat and, for one of them, it was a life-changing moment, a genuine ‘road to Damascus’ experience. And while its impact has not always been as dramatic as that, whenever I have suggested to individuals that they watch it, often in the course of the Spiritual Exercises, it has always proved very worthwhile. But returning to where we began: what about this scene from the film that I think every time I read that story?
Well, it’s the depiction of the moment when Jesus tells them to take the stone away and calls Lazarus out of the tomb. At this point, the camera is inside the tomb, and from there we see Jesus, profiled against a bright blue sky, reach into the darkness and take Lazarus by the hand. And at that moment, a moment of dramatic tension, which is very beautifully done, we, the audience are left wondering for a split second if Jesus is going to pull Lazarus out into the light, or if Lazarus going to pull Jesus into the darkness. And although we know how the story ends, for a moment we are seduced by the dark arts of the cinema to believe that Lazarus might actually win this symbolic tug-o-war, before Jesus pulls harder and Lazarus is out into the light.
So, the usual question: why am I telling you this today? Well, because in that split second of wondering we see a picture of the fundamental choice which is always facing us, but which has particular significance at this moment of national crisis. It’s like that other moment in the book of Deuteronomy which we hear every year the day after Ash Wednesday, when Moses addresses the people as they are about to enter the Promised Land. “See today” he says, “I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live in the love of the Lord your God.” That is the choice facing us all at this moment. We keep hearing how the current situation brings out the best and the worst in us. Well, that’s the choice, Which is it going to be? Light or darkness, life or death, the best or the worst in us, both as a society and as individuals?
And both are there for all to see. As I write this on Thursday afternoon, the Chancellor has just announced his plan to deal with the problems of self-employed people, in the course of which he said that the government had set aside ideology in the interest of people’s needs at this time of crisis. At which point the child in my womb leapt for joy. For more than ten years we have been hearing about the need for austerity. From the health service, to the police, to education, to the benefit system, we have seen cut after cut. Now there’s money for everything. The amounts are eye-watering and will have to be repaid over the coming years. But for a moment we are seeing that we are a very rich country and that, if we leave ideology and political dogma aside, there is money to do all kinds of things if we really want to. It’s all about choices and it will be interesting to see what happens when this is over. Will we revert to our old ways or will this experience change us. Will we be pulled back into the tomb of narrow self-interest or will we emerge from the tomb and embrace the new way of living we are seeing glimpses of these days. Will it be back to our default position or will we press the re-set button?
But there are many other signs of this struggle between the best and the worst in us. All we need do is look around. The goodness and generosity being shown by so many people in towns and villages all over the world. The nightly shows of gratitude to health workers in so many countries. But, of course, there have been negatives: the perennial blaming of foreigners, people coughing into the faces of the police, ways of behaving that put people’s lives at risk. Human nature at its very best versus its very worst, a never-ending battle that has gone on since the beginning of time and in which we are all currently on the front line. One phenomenon that I might originally have added to the list of negatives is panic buying. But I am not doing that now. It is merely a symptom of much more primitive battle between trust on the one hand and fear on the other. With so much time on my hands I have been praying more than usual these days. Not praying FOR things, but sitting before the Blessed Sacrament, reflecting prayerfully on what is happening inside myself and in the world around me at this time. And what I noticed very early on was that same fear in myself, a fear which works havoc in my imagination, conjuring up all kinds of scenarios which may never happen, the antidote to which is to choose to focus more on other people and the things that are happening to them. To retreat into ourselves is to crawl back into the tomb. To reach out to others is to let Jesus draw us into the light. And so the battle goes on.
There was an article in Friday’s Guardian which made me want to abandon this whole homily and just copy out the full text from the newspaper. But I simply offer you one short paragraph. It’s by Ben Okri, who, talking about our society since 1945, writes:
“A pandemic of selfishness has eroded some of the best things the world learned from the two world wars. We are gradually forgetting the value of international cooperation. Values of the market have taken over from the values of human solidarity. And even human life. Our judgements have been skewed by the measures of the money rather than the measure of the heart” …….. “The real tragedy”, he says “would be to come through this pandemic without changing for the better.”
This, I believe, is what the God who moves deep within the events of history is inviting us to contemplate these days. We are all Lazarus. The world is Lazarus. And Jesus speaks the same words to us all. “Unbind him/her/them and let them go free.”