Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Every time I hear of Lazarus, I think of zombies. So some years ago I watched an episode of the Walking Dead for the first time. If you’ve never seen it, it’s not for the faint of heart. Lots of violence, depravity, and shuffling, glassy-eyed, brain-hungry zombies. Most war movies are tame by comparison. This is just gruesome and vile. My dad would never watch this. He would shrug and say it’s not real. But he’ll watch Schwarzenegger and van Damme. He thinks his movie choices are more believable, more realistic, and more likely to take place in the real world. Most fantasy has some basis in reality, but with varying degrees of plausibility from the monsters under your bed, to conspiracy theories about the death of John F. Kennedy, the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, and Malaysian Airline flight 370. Belief comes with its own risks.

Now zombies have seen a surge in popularity lately, after the recent successes of werewolves and vampires. But it appears zombies have peaked, at least those we see on TV and the movies. What I find woefully lacking is the zombie point of view. They have no names. Before and after they get that hungry stare, they’re different people. So they’re only identified collectively—walkers, biters, the undead. They don’t interact in a meaningful way, not with each other, not with the living. All they desire is to feed. I imagine happiness is rare for them, since they’re always hungry. They don’t pursue hobbies or cultivate the arts. All they do is shuffle around in search of their next meal. So at no time will zombies ever work hard to rise above their miserable state, to sacrifice selfish comfort for a noble purpose, or transcend their inevitable undead fate. I think it’s genius someone is actually making a profit out of this brainless premise.

But the world of the undead is not all that different from the world of the living. 28 years ago, I thought I was living a full life. I had achieved my dream. I was in the prime of my youth. I was a brand spanking new priest. I was teaching at an all-boys high school in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. But I felt this deep dark emptiness inside. It took almost a year to recognize I was living the wrong life in the wrong place, first in New Orleans, then St. Louis, then Tampa, then New York City, all in the span of 8 months. I thought I knew how to pray, but suddenly I was just going through the motions. For someone with direct access to Jesus in the Eucharist everyday, I was living in a fog. It wasn’t that I doubted. I never stopped professing my Christian faith. There just was no joy or passion in my life. Those I sought for advice did little to lift the sadness I felt. Maybe I wasn’t listening. Maybe I thought I would find the answers myself. I played with the idea of moving away and starting from scratch, away from family, away from my priesthood, away from everything I knew and loved. I had learned to despise the mechanical, unthinking, passive observance of rules. But in the fog that was my life, it was all I had. I imagined once the fog lifted, I could regain my bearings. So when I came to the end of my rope, I called mom and I told her I had lost my way. I dreaded I would hear the same platitudes I had heard from other people. Instead, she spoke the words that gave me hope, “When are you coming home?”

When I came home, I found the words to tell my story. I spoke to my pastor, and eventually to the bishop, and I began the painful grueling walk back to the land of the living. I think I am more alive now, wiser, more confident, more trusting, more open to the Holy Spirit’s lead. And when I stop to think about what I went through, I can only say I was among the undead. But I know now there is a way out of that existence.

I learned that when you are undead, you only want one thing—food to keep you going, usually something unhealthy, definitely nothing for the spiritual life. It can be drugs, or alcohol, or arrogance, or violence, or sex. And everything around you will play right into your misery. No one cares. Look out for number one. And eventually, if there is a God, how can he ignore my pain? It takes a great deal of pain and courage for the undead to find their way out of their tombs. They may not know it then, but Jesus always makes the first move, calling out their name, “Lazarus, come out.” It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been undead, four days, forty years, there is a way back to life. And when you emerge, you will need help to shed the burial cloths and bindings. And that, too, will take time. Give yourself the time you need. Let go of the old life, and the grip of darkness, and the comforts of the grave.

The truth is Jesus alone has power to raise the dead to life, and the undead to new life. This is the meaning of the sign. The prophecy of Ezekiel is fulfilled in Jesus. God has placed his spirit in us that we might live! St. Paul clearly understood what it means to be alive in God’s Spirit, that sin is put to death in us, and that God gives life to our mortal bodies through the same Spirit dwelling in us. Well, that is the plan anyway. And yet the undead still walk the earth. We walk among them. We walk beside them. Sometimes we are them. And someone is still making a profit off that brainless premise.

Next week is Holy Week. The season of Lent has been pointing us all along in the direction of new life, and seeing with new eyes, and taking living water to quench our thirst. A better life awaits us if only we hear Jesus call to us to emerge from our graves. Are you ready to heed his voice and leave behind the sad painful aimless existence that is your life among the undead?

Rolo B Castillo © 2023