Friday, May 29, 2009

3-9-2008: 5th Lent (A)

Ezekiel 37:12-14/Psalm 130/Romans 8:8-11/John 11:1-45
World War II vets usually have great stories; here’s one I just heard. A young sailor is on a ship. It comes under heavy attack. An explosion knocks him out cold. He’s taken for dead. Hours later he wakes up in the dark, enveloped by coarse material. There’s a foul smell. He begins to yell. Luckily, someone hears him and opens the body bag where his comrades had placed him taking him for dead.

Whether or not Lazarus was really dead or not, he soon would have been if Jesus didn’t cry out in a loud voice, as we’re told in today’s gospel, calling him out of the dark and dank of the tomb and commanding those around him to untie him and let him go free.

To question Lazarus’ actual state of being – was he dead or alive at the time of burial -- is not to be skeptical. It simply points to a question that has become increasingly difficult to answer: how do we know when someone has died and, conversely, how do we know when someone comes into existence as a human person. In defense against what recent popes have called the culture of death, the Church has employed catchy slogans which offer no unambiguous solution to the dilemma. From conception to natural death, one slogan goes; but with advances in medical science, reproductive technologies and life-prolonging techniques, we need at least to come up with a better slogan if we’re indeed serious about our regard for human dignity.

Regarding conception, no reasonable person can any longer contest that the unborn child is a human being; but the Church has yet to address the all-important question of when ensoulment takes place – when does God breath into the individual an immortal soul. To simply say “at the moment of conception” is no longer a feasible response since we now know that the individual fertilized blastocyst has the potential, within a week or two, to become twins – two individuals who, according to reason, cannot share the same individual immortal soul. Thus, the dilemma.

Regarding death, there is even greater ambiguity. The Church teaches that we do not have to employ extraordinary, artificial means to prolong life. Yet, recent church pronouncements have insisted that food and water are not to be considered extraordinary means in the prolongation of life (at least for persons in a persistent vegetative state). But when an elderly person simply does not want to eat, should he be forced to undergo invasive surgery to insert a feeding tube so that he is nourished against his desire? Isn’t it plausible to understand the body’s natural refusal of food as part of a natural process of death? Isn’t death itself a process? Physical life, from the Christian point of view, has never been an absolute value.
Slogans will simply no longer satisfy. The Church does not serve the gospel of life well if she does not seriously entertain these nagging questions of life and death, regardless of the political climate. Untie him, Jesus commanded, and let him go free. The truth, wherever it may lead, will make us free as well.

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