The Strange Case of Lazarus

St. John’s Gospel records the story of Christ’s raising Lazarus from the dead as the last action of Christ before His entry into Jerusalem. That setting has given rise to the feast of Lazarus Saturday in the Orthodox Church – a small Pascha before Holy Week.

The three synoptic gospels make no mention of these events, to which I draw no historical conclusions. The gospels include and exclude events for many reasons, historical considerations seeming to be of the least importance. Which stories, and in what order, primarily serve deeper theological concerns.

For St. John, the story of Lazarus serves as the occasion for commentary and teaching on the resurrection of believers, much like the Feeding of the Five Thousand serves for commentary and teaching on the Eucharist.

“If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” (Martha’s words) echoes the universal voice of the Church in the face of Christ’s delayed Second Coming. It is the plaintive heart of believers who wonder why God allows suffering.

And some of them said, “Could not this Man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?” (Joh 11:37)

It is an obvious question, repeated in various forms by believers as well as scoffers through the centuries. The story of Lazarus, which occurs before Christ’s suffering and death, specifically addresses the heart of the Church after Christ’s suffering and death. For though we rejoice in Christ’s death and resurrection, it is our dead brother (mother, father, sister, friend) who lies heavy on our hearts.

“Your brother will rise again.” These words of Christ, like a statement of Church doctrine, bring little comfort to someone stuck in their grief. It is Christ’s affirmation, “I am the resurrection and the life,” that sums up the encounter. The people do not understand, not even when Lazarus is raised from the dead. That Christ Himself is the resurrection and the life does not become clear until His own resurrection.

Christ says elsewhere in John’s gospel: “For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself,” (Joh 5:26). But none of this is remembered until after Christ Himself is raised.

And the resurrection of Christ is not like the resurrection of Lazarus: Lazarus dies again, later. Tradition holds that he became the bishop of Cyprus and was buried there (his tomb can still be seen in Larnaca).

We all stand like Mary and Martha of Bethany, mourning brothers and others whom we have lost. And the resurrection of Christ too easily passes into dry doctrine, “My brother will rise at the last day.” The resurrection of Christ, as historical event, easily begins to lose its existential importance: “I am the resurrection.”

It is an interesting phrase, “I am the resurrection.” This is not at all the same thing as saying, “I will be raised from the dead,” or “I will raise your brother from the dead.” For both of those statements turn an existential matter into a simple statement of fact. And though facts may be true, they are often simply inaccessible. That Paris is the capital of France is a fact – but it means nothing to me – I’ve never been there and have no plans to go.

The resurrection is more than fact, it is a person. And as a person, it may be known and existentially encountered. And it is this that lies at the heart of Pascha. For it is not the risen Lord of history, lost to us among the many facts, that we proclaim and celebrate. It is the Christ, Who is the Resurrection, present in our midst, united with us, daily trampling down death by death, the Jesus Whom we know that we greet with joy.

The Church does not shout, “Christ rose from the dead! Fact! Fact! Fact!” It shouts, “Christ is risen from the dead! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Lazarus was raised from the dead. Christ is risen from the dead. The difference is everything. Our hope is not in being resuscitated to our present form, but a true transformation into the life of resurrection.

There is an ancient story told about Lazarus in his years following his being raised. It was said that he never smiled – such was the sobering effect of what he had seen in Hades. However, it is said that he laughed – once. A man was angry and smashed a pot. Lazarus laughed and said, “The clay smashes the clay.”

Lazarus was not in love with our life as clay. He knew the Resurrection and longed for a true and final victory. His first encounter with Hades, the fact of his being raised when he had been four-days-dead, is not the victory itself – but the foreshadowing of something far greater which is to come. Lazarus Saturday reminds us of a greater Saturday and of a dawn that shatters all dawns.

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1Jo 3:2)


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