Saturday, May 7, 2011

11-04-10: 5th Sunday of Lent

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Ezekiel 37:12-14 / Psalm 130 / Romans 8:8-11 / John 11:1-45

I suppose you could call the event recorded in today’s gospel (Jesus calling Lazarus from the tomb) a “near-death-experience” (NDE). For the past few decades many have claimed that, although they have been pronounced “clinically dead,” they became aware of their surroundings, feeling somehow outside their bodies. Many claimed they saw or heard the voice of Jesus, or at least some divine being, who called them into the light at the end of a dark tunnel. All of them, of course, did not follow the light but returned to tell their story. Lazarus was dead, the scripture says, for four days. I don’t know for sure but I don’t think anyone had been “clinically dead” for four days and then returned, but there have been a good number of people who were in “Persistent Vegetative States” (PVS) - in a coma for at least a year - who have woken up, have come back (literally) to their senses.

These phenomena prove that, for all our medical advancements over the past two millennia, we still do not know what death really means, because we don’t really know when death occurs. Some authorities determine death to occur when a person’s heart and breathing stop; others, only when brain activity has ceased. Theoretically, you could be pronounced “dead” in New Jersey, but still judged “alive” in Tennessee. In these conflicting perspectives, death is, well - arbitrary.

The predicament becomes even more acute when the “dead” person’s organs are needed by someone who is, literally, dying for them. The determination of the moment of death directly affects the viability of the donor’s organs. Transplanting vital organs a few minutes sooner rather than later can mean the difference between life and death for the recipient.

Religious and cultural differences play a huge role in how we react to a dying person: do we do anything and everything, even medical procedures we know to be futile, to prolong the moment when death is pronounced; or do we let the person die without administering “extraordinary” means of life support? Cases like that of Terri Schiavo will only become more common as medical technology develops further ways to prolong life – or the semblance of life – almost indefinitely. John Paul II’s pronouncement a few years back that artificial hydration and nutrition are to be considered “ordinary” and therefore morally obligatory - even when administered through a surgical procedure for persons in Persistent Vegetative States - will further complicate how families deal with a loved one in such a condition. The pope’s concern that the dignity of human life is not lost in PVS patients does not absolve from the inherent contradiction in the church’s position concerning what is considered “ordinary” and “extraordinary” means. Since food and water, the pope argues, are considered necessary for human life they must be offered even if they can only be offered by means of a medical/surgical intervention. On the other hand, the church has long taught that placing patients on mechanical ventilators when their lungs cease to function, is to be considered “extraordinary” and therefore non-obligatory. But isn’t oxygen as essential to life as hydration and nutrition? Why is providing one obligatory, and the other not?

If the Lazarus experience from the gospel could be classified as a NDE, an interesting irony arises. Those who claim to have experienced a NDE usually tell us that Jesus is calling them to leave this world and follow him into the next. But Lazarus hears Jesus calling him back to this world. And, apart from the miracle revealing Jesus’ power as divine, maybe that’s the most important lesson for us in the here and now. It’s all about what we do with the second chances were given in life.

It’s too bad we don’t have a follow-up to the Lazarus story. I’m imagining that someday, as a road crew is digging on the outskirts of Jerusalem to lay the foundation for some new building, they discover a long-lost manuscript telling us of what Lazarus did with his second chance at life. Did he put his extra time to good use? What did he accomplish? Did he leave his sisters and marry? Did he follow Jesus, albeit from a distance? After his NDE how did he use that precious gift of time? We could ask the same of many of our contemporaries who have gotten a second chance at life through some modern medical miracle, being called back from the dead. But ultimately the lesson is a universal one even for us who haven’t had a NDE. Each morning when we open our eyes after the darkness of sleep, and are called into the land of the living, we’re given another chance at life – another chance at making a difference, lending a helping hand, loving someone, sacrificing for someone who’s loved us. We’re all Lazarus: we’re all in the midst of a near-death-experience whether we’re on the operating table or performing our routine day-to-day tasks. Remember that even though Lazarus is brought back from the dead and given a second chance at life, he still must die again - same as us. The miracle of a renewed life is a wonderful gift, but it’s based on a solid certainty: this life won’t last forever – we’re all terminal.

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