HOMILY THEME: Dying and Rising

By: Fr. Gerald Musa

HOMILY: Phoenix is an ancient bird that dies and rises again. What is even more amazing about this legendary bird is how the bird burns at the end of its life and a new bird (little Phoenix) emerges from the ashes of the old Phoenix. Christian art uses Phoenix as a symbol of new life and resurrection, and as a sign of renewal and immortality.

As I reflect over the life of the Phoenix bird, I think of people who ‘die’ and ‘rise’ again through very tough experiences in life. There are people and organisations that have stood the test of time through surviving difficult times. At some points in life, they seem to be dying, but afterwards they rise again stronger than they were. I remember St. Theresa’s Church, Funtua, Katsina State which has been set ablaze three times within 27 years. In 1987 this Church was among the many churches burnt as a result of some conflict between Christians and Muslims. Consequently, it took the people several years to rebuild the Church. In 2011, the Church was burnt again because a presidential candidate lost an election. The people had to gather the rubbles and rebuild the church again. Having completed the rebuilt Church edifice and the parish house, they suffered another grievous blow when the Church was vandalised and the surrounding buildings were set on fire again in 2014. For how long shall this people continue to rebuild their place of worship from the ashes of destruction? This people have had three resurrection experiences. The experience of the people of Funtua is reminiscent of the life of the Phoenix and from a wider perspective, it also symbolises the resilience of the continent of Africa (Mama Africa) who continues to suffer and rise again. In 1989, Richard Ostling of Time Magazine wrote: “Africa is a continent crucified by famine and war, pestilence and poverty. For Christianity, however, it is a continent of resurrection.”

Individuals, communities and nations go through the hard experience of dying and joyful experience of rising. In the 37th chapter of the book of Ezekiel, the prophet was led into a valley of dry bones. The dry bones symbolise the people of Israel who had suffered a lot of hardships and were on the verge of losing hope. They kept saying: “Our bones are dry, hope has gone, it is the end of us (37:11). God responded to this people who were dead and were in the tomb of despair and frustration, offering them words of hope and consolation, saying: “I am going to open your tombs, I shall bring you out of your tombs, my people…when I put my spirit in you and you live” (37:12, 14).

Death is not just the loss of physical breath and neither is life limited to breathing physical air. In moments of despair we experience some form of temporary death. This is perhaps the reason why an anonymous writer says, “life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breaths away.” We read about the death of Lazarus in the Gospel of John and we observe that even as he was physically dead, his sisters Mary and Martha were emotionally dead with grief. The death of their brother was too hard to bear. In this story, we see another dimension of Martha and Mary. Martha, the ever-active and outgoing woman, expresses strong faith in that moment of grief and deep sorrow. She went out to meet Jesus and proclaimed her faith by saying: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world” (John 11:27). While Martha was out, Mary sat in the house in her usual contemplative style and weeping until she was called by her Sister to come and meet Jesus. Nevertheless, it is amazing to observe that even though the two sisters had different temperaments, they were united in spirit. They spoke to Jesus at different times, but had one opinion running through their lips: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21).

In that moment of grief, Mary and Martha turned to Jesus for consolation. Jesus showed deep sympathy for this family who had been so kind and hospitable to him. When he saw Mary, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. He cried. This is why the Apostle Paul admonishes us to show solidarity with other people and says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). Even as Jesus mourned, he was conscious of his mission and so he proclaimed: “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me though he dies, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25). Jesus demonstrated his power over death and life by restoring the life of the dead man, Lazarus. Lazarus was already in the tomb for four days. It was the custom of Jewish people to tie the dead in the tomb and so Jesus ordered the people to untie him. The tying of Lazarus in the grave illustrates the bondage of death and when he was untied, Jesus liberated him from the chains of death and incapacitation – He called Lazarus back to life.

Likewise, Jesus restores life not only when we are physically dead, but he also restores life to us even when we are dead in sin. He gives a new life to those who experience a positive and radical change in lifestyle. The letter to the Romans points to the new life the Spirit gives to those who resurrect spiritually: “But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10). Jesus gives a new life to those who die for others by sacrificing their own lives in service. Like the Phoenix, we get burnt and come out new and that explains why the Philosopher Voltaire believes that “Everything in nature is resurrection.”
5th Sunday of Lent, Year A; Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

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