On the Threshold of the Great Week

Saturday in Passiontide
Ezekiel 37:21-28
Jeremiah 31
John 11:45-56

Mother of Sorrows, Keeper of the Door
There is on Mount Athos a greatly venerated icon of the Blessed Virgin named “The Holy Mother of God, Keeper of the Door.” The Virgin Mary is indeed the Keeper of the Door. She is the guardian of the threshold, the portress of “the inner sanctuary behind the veil” (Heb 6:19). We prepare today to cross the threshold of Holy Week. Seek our Lady’s company, then, and entrust to her Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart our “passing over,” our “entering into” the mysteries of the Great Week.
In what ways is the Mother of Sorrows the Keeper of the Door? Mary waits for us at the foot of the Cross, pointing to the open door of her Son’s pierced Heart. “Enter there,” she says, “hide like the dove in the cleft of the rock” (cf. Ct 2:14). She waits for us at the foot of the Cross, the body of her Son resting in death against her breast. “Enter my sorrow,” she says, “and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow” (Lam 1:12). She waits for us before the sealed tomb. “Cross the threshold of hope,” she says, “for hope does not disappoint us” (Rom 5:5). She waits for us before the empty tomb. “Pass over into my joy,” she says, “and no one will take your joy from you” (Jn 16:22). With Mary, then, let us be attentive today to the doors set before us, those through which we have already passed, and those that lie ahead.
After the Resurrection of Lazarus
The traditional baptismal Gospels of the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent — the Gospels of water, light, and life — are a succession of thresholds marking our passage into the heart of the liturgy: the Paschal Mystery. There is continuity between last Sunday’s Gospel and today’s. The Gospel of the resurrection of Lazarus ended with verse 44 of the eleventh chapter of Saint John. Today’s Gospel begins with verse 45 of the same chapter. This is a device of liturgical inclusion. It situates the entire week within the mystery of the resurrection of Lazarus: a crossing of the threshold, a passage out of death into life, out of darkness into light, out of the stench of corruption into the sweet fragrance of grace.
Lazare, Veni Foras
The cry of Our Lord before the tomb of Lazarus echoes still in our hearts. “Lazare, veni foras” (Jn 11:43). Hear the immensity of this cry. It is addressed to each of us. Who among us is not Lazarus, called out of the shadow of death into the light of day, out of the bands of death’s confining shroud into the freedom of movement in the Holy Spirit? For Saint Bernard, if you are called to a life of penance, you are Lazarus. Nothing better expresses the intensity and power of Jesus’ call to life than the melody of the Communion Antiphon over the words, “Lazare, veni foras.” The great cry itself is fittingly sung by a single voice, allowing all to pause and hear it before continuing with the rest of the antiphon.
My Sanctuary in the Midst of Them
Why does the sacred liturgy set this “icon” of the resurrection of Lazarus before us? First of all because the resurrection of Lazarus announces the resurrection of Christ. The glorious body of the risen Christ fulfills the prophecy of Ezekiel in today’s First Reading: “I will set My sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore. My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God and they will be My people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord sanctify Israel, when My sanctuary is in the midst of them for evermore” (Ez 37:26-28).
The sanctuary of the living God in the midst of us is the Body of Christ, both mystical and Eucharistic. “Now you are the Body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor 12:27). All prayer to the Father originates in the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is the sanctuary from which the cry of our prayer ascends to the Father in the Holy Spirit. The resurrection of Christ confirms forever God’s covenant of peace with us, the everlasting covenant announced by the prophet Ezekiel (Ez 27:36). The risen Christ Himself is the sanctuary of God into which, as we heard in the Gospel, “the children of God who are scattered abroad are gathered into one” (Jn 11:52).
Altar, Priest, and Victim
In one of the Prefaces of Paschaltide the Church sings that Christ himself is at once,”altar, priest, and victim.” Without these there can be no sanctuary. As our altar, Christ is the source of our unity. As our priest, He gathers into unity the scattered children of God. As our victim, He gives the sacrifice of His Body and Blood in communion.
Tomb and Womb
Secondly, the resurrection of Lazarus must be seen in the baptismal context of the paschal liturgy. Lazarus emerging from the tomb images the mystery of baptism. Christ’s mighty “Veni foras! — Come forth!” is addressed to those who will descend into the watery tomb of baptism in the holy night of Pascha.
Penitents All
Thirdly, the resurrection of Lazarus is the image of our penitence. We are catechumens but once in life; we are baptized but once. In antiquity Lent was a whole program of restoration, rehabilitation,instruction, healing, and finally, of spiritual resurrection. The rite of Reconciliation of Penitents took place on Maundy Thursday; the penitents, grasping the hand of the bishop, reintegrated the Eucharistic communion of the Church, re-entered the sanctuary of the Body of Christ. When, on Ash Wednesday, we received ashes on our heads, we publicly declared ourselves penitents. Since last Sunday, the voice of Christ has cried out to us, saying, “Veni foras! — Come forth!” Christ will not leave us to rot in the obscurity of our tombs. He extends his hand. He calls us to newness of life on his side of the threshold.
In the Communion of the Church
There is, for all of that, a detail not to be overlooked. Christ leaves us free to respond or not to his cry, “Veni foras! — Come forth!” Is it possible to prefer the stench and darkness of the tomb — isolation and death — to life, to light, to communion with Christ and with one another? You have not forgotten, I am sure, that Lazarus came forth from the tomb “his hands and feet bound with bandages” (Jn 11:44). He emerged from the darkness into the light of day having need of others to “unbind him and let him go” (Jn 11:44). The new life, the risen life cannot be lived outside the community of the Church, nor apart from the fraternal communion of the monastery. When we withdraw, preferring the isolation of the bands that bind us, to the ministrations of fraternal charity, we refuse life. We have need of the communion of the Church, need of the hands and feet of others, need of the compassionate unbinding of the Mother of God. We find all of this — communion with whole Body of Christ — in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
The Aroma of Christ to God
Holy Mass is, at one and the same time, both covenant and communion. The Eucharist establishes us in the sanctuary of Christ’s Body, knits us into the Body of Christ by feeding us with the Body of Christ. And this why today we cross again the threshold into the Great Thanksgiving. We cross it like Lazarus stepping into the light, inhaling “the aroma of Christ to God” (2 Cor 2:15). And the Mother of Christ, the Portress of the Mysteries, is there to welcome us.

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