Some time back I saw a program about Stephen Hawking, the English physicist who is confined to a wheelchair because of motor neuron disease, but whose brain is working perfectly, and who is an extra-ordinary genius. He wrote A brief history of time, attempting to explain the origins of the universe. Over twenty years ago he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease and he was told he had at best two years to live. Today he is still doing ground-breaking work in physics although the only muscle that he can still move is one of his cheeks. There is a small sensor beside his cheek, which is attached to a computer. By moving his cheek he can speak to people and continue working through his computer. No doubt one of the reasons why he is still alive is his will to live. He has an extraordinary determination to keep going.
There is so much more to being alive than just physical health, although of course that is what we all wish for. Many people would consider that life would not be worth living if you were in the physical state that Stephen Hawking is in, and yet look at what he has already done.
When I was first ordained a priest I worked as a hospital chaplain in my home town of Galway. I often saw people who, having lost the will to live, would go down-hill very quickly and die. I also saw people who were told that they would probably not recover, but because they were absolutely determined to keep going, they would recover, often completely against the odds. One of the key differences between those who keep going and those who don’t is something spiritual: hope. When we have hope we can keep going even against the odds. If we have no hope, we may not survive even the ordinary.
A few years ago in a housing complex called Moyross, in Limerick—one of the toughest and most troubled areas of that city—a new group of Religious moved in. They are called the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, which were started by Fr. Benedict Goreschel in the Bronx, New York. They live very like the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s order) in extreme poverty. Apparently the area has been transformed, for the simple reason that they have given the people there new hope. By moving in there, they have shown those people that they are worth something and that in itself has given them new hope.
Because we believe that God wants us to be happy, to live life in all its fullness, that gives us hope which we are inspired to pass on to others. Because we have hope we are able to work to promote and strengthen married life even when it goes wrong; we continue to work with younger people and encourage them not to give up even when they have messed up through drugs, or alcohol; we continue to work for justice and peace often in very difficult circumstances. Our faith in God gives us hope, which in turn inspires others to keep going.
In this beautiful Gospel we hear how Jesus deliberately waited when he heard that Lazarus was sick, in order to work this miracle before everyone’s eyes. He wanted to show them something. He wanted to show them that God has power even over death and that if He allows people to die that it is not the end. Just as Jesus called Lazarus out of death, so Jesus will also call us out of death when we die and we will begin a new and wonderful life with him, if we have chosen life with God. We make that choice by the way we live.
In bringing Lazarus back to life, Jesus was helping people to believe in who he was. He was also giving them hope, showing them that there is a bigger picture and so much that we do not understand. Death is not everything. Physical health is not everything either, but having hope is essential if we are to keep going through the many difficulties that we continue to face. Our faith in God gives us hope and this hope also gives others hope.
‘I shall put my Spirit in you,
and you will live and I shall resettle you on your own soil;
and you will know that I the Lord have said and done this.’