The Gospels readings for the 3 Sundays leading up to Palm Sunday have something peculiar in common — unlikely emissaries of the Gospel. The Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, and this week’s spotlight guest in particular, a dead man, are not the first people we would choose to preach the Good News.
This is a great mystery. Dead in the ground for 4 days, Lazarus does not get much say in this Sunday’s Gospel (John chapter 11). The talk of the town is centered on him, because of their grief, though it goes without saying, he never says a word. How can a dead man announce the Gospel? The answer is simple. He can if God wants him to.
To understand this point clearly, every phase of this Gospel passage is about realignment, reorienting the compass toward its proper reference point. In our moral, spiritual, and apostolic lives, our compass must always point to Christ.
We see this point reiterated constantly throughout the Gospel passage. For the Apostles, the issue is about their comfort zone; for Martha and Mary, it is their loss; for the mourning masses, it is about appearances, rather than focusing on the most important thing, namely, faith in Jesus Christ.
“Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.”
When Lazarus is raised from the dead, amazingly, the focus shifts from the dead man to the Lord of the living, who raised him up. Without ever uttering a word, Lazarus speaks loud volumes, pointing only to Christ. From here on out, until the Lord himself rises from the dead, all eyes — for good or ill — are on Christ. What an amazing prophet Lazarus was, even after everyone counted him out!
Marti Hebert is an unlikely messenger of the Gospel. He is not your ordinary 38 year old carpenter. At the early age of 21 he killed a man in a fight. Now he serves a life sentence for second-degree murder at Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, were few men are known to ever come out alive.
How can Marti announce the Gospel from prison?
When Burl Cain became the Warden of the Angola Penitentiary, his wife told him, “You are not simply in charge of caring for these men’s bodies, you are in charge of caring for their souls as well.” Evidently, he took this task to heart. What was renowned as one of the toughest and most brutal prisons in the country, where the most violent criminals were sent to die, is now known as “a land of new beginnings.” Prisoners, who still may never join society again, not only see the light with renewed eyes of faith, they are also great beacons of Christ’s light to others. Many inmates receive degrees in Christian ministry, and some are sent as missionaries to other prisons. Their mission: to bear Christ’s light and let it shine in the dark corners of other prison walls.
Warden Cain has thus been named, by some, God’s own warden. The stories of reform and renewal in Angola are too numerous to tell, but you can read some of them here, in this article: Breaking into Prison (Christianity Today).
Of course there are many inspiring stories about the lives of the men of Angola you might never hear or read on line. Marti Hebert’s story came to me by way of the crucifix I’ve featured in this post. He spent 10 weeks designing and sculpting the corpus for my parish, St Brendan’s Catholic Church, in Cumming, GA. This corpus will be mounted on the cross behind the church’s main altar on Palm Sunday this year.
Marti’s life and mission is now a part of St Brendan’s. His sculpture of Christ’s broken body is a reminder to us of faith and hope in New Life in Christ, and it serves to remind us also that we must constantly realign ourselves, direct ourselves, and point others toward our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Today, this is the message Christ sends us through the most unlikely suspects, such as Lazarus, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, and Marti Hebert (and maybe someone else you may know): Never lose sight of Christ. Never count anyone out. Don’t count yourself out!
- You may also be interested in reading: Catholic Outreach Widens at Louisiana Prison (National Catholic Reporter)