A reflection on the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 26, 2023.
During my years as a high school chaplain, I would welcome the incoming freshmen with the following piece of advice:
Some people look back on their high school years as the most miserable time in their lives. Whether it was bullying, academic stress, or good old-fashioned social exclusion, their late adolescence stands out in their memory as a time of trial and great difficulty. That is unfortunate. Do not do this. Others look at high school as the highlight of their lives. Young, free, and invincible, it was a time of endless possibility and adventure. They see their teenage years as their glory days, the golden age. That is equally unfortunate. Do not do this, either.
We are all shaped by our past for better or worse, and it is good to reflect upon it, celebrate victories, and heal old wounds. But the incapacity to escape from a difficult past, or simply to leave fond memories behind, can be incredibly destructive. This was what I was hoping to impart to those young people.
I don’t know if St. Martha was popular in high school, but she unquestionably dwells on the past in today’s Gospel. “If you had been here, Lord” is the response of a woman who, even in the presence of Christ, is preoccupied with past hurts. To say regret consumes Martha is perhaps too strong, but her focus on “what-ifs” negatively impacts her ability to recognize the Son of God standing before her.
Regret is the first way a preoccupation with the past can negatively impact our souls. It is important to note that I am not speaking here about dealing with traumatic events, acknowledging where we were hurt, or seeking forgiveness for the times we harmed others. This is essential to holiness. But too many people allow the wounds of their pasts to fester untreated without any examination or healing taking place. Too many people gloss over past sins as if their temporal distance makes them irrelevant. What I am instead speaking about here is allowing past pain to define us. We often find a tempting but ultimately illusory comfort in wallowing in self-pity. In preferring to repeat “if you had only…” over and over, we don’t engage in the difficult work of healing, reconciliation, and growth. Regret can be stifling.
Even if we find it difficult to extract ourselves from cycles of regret, most of us recognize that it is not a healthy emotional or spiritual response to the past. The second trap we face can be even more insidious because it is not always immediately recognized for the spiritual danger it is. Nostalgia is an obsessive longing for an unrecoverable past.
Again, it is crucial here to make distinctions. We spend a fair amount of time focusing on the positive aspects of our past as Catholics. For the most part, Scripture, stories of the saints, and Church history involve taking lessons from past events. Tradition and traditions are built upon the experiences and teachings of those who have gone before us. Even on a personal level, it is good to revisit memories of grace-filled moments often in prayer. However, what we are not called to do is long for the past. The Christian does not believe that the past is home to some golden age to which we are called to return but that the time of Christ’s fulfillment lies ahead of us. Desiring to return to the days of yore to avoid present challenges can develop into the vice of sloth. We are called to keep our eyes trained forward, seeking to grow in our relationship with God tomorrow, not yesterday. Our past forms us, but we should never be trapped by it.
Let us return then to the story of Martha and Jesus. Martha’s preoccupation with an event that already took place prevents her from noticing that the future Christ promises has already arrived. She acknowledges resurrection as an article of faith, a far-off reality, but not one that impacts her life now. Christ informs Martha that the Resurrection, the new life that he promises, is immanent, not as a vague wish for the future, but as something life-changing happening at this moment. Jesus boldly proclaims, “I am the resurrection” and proceeds to perform one of the most spectacular miracles of his entire ministry, announcing the present realization of her hopes for the future. The raising of Lazarus is a wake-up call to those trapped by the past.
Yes, our histories can be filled with mistakes, pain, and trauma, but right now, Christ is offering his healing grace to raise us out of that suffering. Yes, we can be proud of the things we have accomplished, but right now, Christ is doing something even more spectacular within his creation. The past is important and cannot be ignored, but the future Christ promises is here now.
Image Credit: Rembrandt van Rijn “The Meeting of Christ with Martha and Mary after the Death of Lazarus” Public Domain via Cleveland Museum of Art.
Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.