Let the Scriptures Speak
Fullness of Life
“I am the resurrection and the life;
whoever believes in me,
even if he dies, will live.” (John 11:25)
Who wants the fullness of life? Everyone. Advertisers know this very well. And so they contrive commercials that prompt us to associate evocative phrases like “the fabric of our lives” or “as good as it gets” with specific products, hoping that we will associate our quest for life's fullness with the purchase of those commodities.
The Bible, of course, also makes claims about the fullness of life. It often does so in surprising language. The readings for this Sunday provide stunning examples of biblical imagery about the fullness of life.
The reading from Ezekiel—“I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel”—comes as an explanation of the famous vision of the valley of the dry bones. People who do not read the whole chapter (Ezekiel 37) can miss the message entirely. Ezekiel is shown a valley full of bones and is commanded to prophesy to the bones: “See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life. I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin, and put spirit in you so that you may come to life and know that I am the Lord.” The prophet does as he is told, and in a process celebrated in the African American spiritual “Dry Bones,” the bones are reconstructed into skeletons, enfleshed, and revived, “they came alive and stood upright, a vast army. Then he said to me: Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They have been saying, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.’” It is at that point that today's First Reading begins, with its promise to return the people to their homeland.
When we recall that Ezekiel was preaching to the Judeans living in exile in Babylon, it is clear that the passage is not first of all about resurrection. Rather, it uses resurrection imagery to describe the restoration of the people that comes about when the Persian Cyrus the Great conquers the Babylonians and allows the Judeans to return. Thus the imagery of resurrection portrays God's revival of his covenant people and the renewal of their relationship with him (“Thus you shall know that I am the Lord”). This vision proclaims that, for Israel, the fullness of their life as a people is knowing the saving power of God in that covenant relationship.
The account of the raising of Lazarus is another exploration into the fullness of life; in this case it is the fullness found by responding to Jesus as the one Sent by the Father. As is usual in the Fourth Gospel, insight comes through conversations in which there are two levels of understanding. Jesus makes statements that are misunderstood by his interlocutors because they hear him in a conventional and superficial way, whereas he means something deeper. Jesus says to his disciples that Lazarus is sleeping and that he is going to awaken him. They take the idiom of sleep and awakening literally, whereas Jesus is really talking about resuscitation of the dead man.
We soon discover that the physical resuscitation of a dead man is a sign of something deeper still. Jesus arrives four days after Lazarus's death, and Martha scolds him for not coming earlier to heal her brother. When Jesus says, “Your brother will rise,” she takes this as a conventional reference to the general resurrection “on the last day.” Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” In this statement, Jesus has moved beyond the traditional Jewish expectation of the general resurrection and applied that language to the new life that a person enters by relating to him with faith.
Just as the healing of the man born blind is a sign of something else, the deeper “seeing” that is the life of faith, the raising of Lazarus from physical death is a sign of a deeper awakening to the fullness of life, the “eternal life” that comes with Christian faith. This is a variation on John 5:24—“Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life.” This transformation is the fullness of life, of which the general resurrection will be a later confirmation.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University