LIFE In Its Fullest
Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 22, 2015
One cold, dark January evening a number of years ago, I was visiting a friend in the hospital. She was nearing the end of a long battle with cancer. When I entered the room, I found her alone, sitting in a chair, wrapped in blankets and just staring out the window into the winter night. She was heavily medicated because of some pretty intense pain. It was a struggle for me to think of something…anything…to say to her.
Finally, with a sense of relief, I noticed sitting off to the side, out of the way of the medical equipment that filled the small room, a festive Christmas cactus in full bloom. It was the only non-essential thing in the sterile ICU room on which to focus, and in stark contrast to its surroundings. Relieved that there was something light-hearted to talk about, I remarked on how beautiful the plant was. Weak as she was, she was able to respond that her kids had brought it to her that evening. Still shocked by her condition and struggling to maintain a somewhat normal conversation, I told her that I had actually tossed a Christmas cactus into the wastebasket that very day. It was given to me at the beginning of the Christmas Season, but it was all brown and withered. (I was sensitive enough not to use the word “died.”)
Actually, this piqued her interest. Somewhat energized by the opportunity to be of use, she told me that I had probably over watered the plant. She encouraged me to take it out of the wastebasket when I got home, advising that I put it in a dark closet. It was her recommendation that I then forget about it until spring.
With that “chit chat” as an ice breaker, we moved into a brief prayer. By the time we were finished praying, she was exhausted. I called for a nurse to help my friend back into bed, and I left for home. Before retiring that night, I did what she suggested. I fished the plant out of the trash and took it upstairs with me and placed it on the shelf of a closet in a seldom used guestroom of the rectory…and I literally forgot all about it.
A few months later, on Good Friday morning, my friend died. It was agreed that her Mass of Christian Burial would be celebrated on Easter Monday morning. Anxious to pay fitting tribute to my faith-filled and heroic friend, and at the same time comfort and encourage her husband and their children, I struggled with both the fatigue from Holy Week, as well as the contrast between Easter Joy and the tragic death of a young wife and mother. I woke early Easter Monday morning, still without a fitting funeral homily.
All of a sudden, I thought about that cold, dark January evening, and I literally jumped up from my desk chair and ran to the room where the poor little plant, rescued from the trash, had been waiting in total darkness. When I opened the closest…just like my friend had predicted…the plant was alive…recovered…revived…resuscitated! It certainly would not have been the first choice in a florist shop, but there was no disputing the life that had returned to its branches. There were even little buds at the tips of the leaves, promising new flowers. My friend had not only saved a plant with her sage advice, she had also arranged her own funeral homily.
I took the little Christmas cactus to the church with me, and, after we blessed her earthly body with the Spirit-filled waters of the Baptismal Font and dressed the casket with the white pall (a reminder that, in Baptism, we put on Christ.), I placed the now living plant on top of the casket with the promise of offering an explanation as to why it was a fitting Christian symbol at the time of the homily.
Of course, I began the homily by telling the mourners the story which I shared at the beginning of this reflection. But then, as now, I stressed that there was no miracle…merely a good gardening tip. Still, it’s clear, or at least it should be, that The Holy Spirit was at work. Timing such as it was, I have no doubt that the Spirit inspired me to use that little plant, much like Jesus used Lazarus…so that doubters might come to believe.
Jesus quite intentionally arranged the timing of His arrival in Bethany, so that all hope for His friend would be lost. Even Martha, after professing her faith in the most powerful of ways: Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the One Who is coming into the world…reacted to the suggestion that the grave be opened with hopelessness…Lord, by now there will be a stench…he had been dead for four days!
But then Jesus called a command to live into the darkness of the tomb. Jesus interrupted Lazarus’s dying by resuscitating, reviving, calling the fullness of life back into Lazarus’s earthly body. This WAS truly a miraculous event. Nevertheless, it was only a glimpse of what was to come on Easter morning…and what awaits those who, like Martha, have come to believe that (Jesus is) the Christ, the Son of God, the One Who is coming into the world.
Think of it this way: Just as the Holy Spirit inspired me to run to a closed closet to find not only a revived plant…but also words that hopefully brought comfort, peace, and hope. The same Spirit inspired the events at Bethany so that people might come to see and believe that Jesus has the words…of everlasting life!
Like the little plant, with time, Lazarus died again…fully….not to be revived or resuscitated…but, through Christ…resurrected! Never to die again. The story of the raising of Lazarus is perfectly placed towards the conclusion of the Lenten season, because it reminds us that, as children of a good and loving God, we can open the dark closets and closed tombs with confidence that what is on the other side is a glorious surprise…LIFE in its fullest!