Lazarus Saturday

Largely ignored by much of Christendom, the Orthodox mark the day before Palm Sunday as “Lazarus Saturday” in something of a prequel to the following weekend’s Pascha. It is, indeed a little Pascha just before the greater one. And this, of course, was arranged by Christ Himself, who raised His friend Lazarus from the dead as something of a last action before entering Jerusalem and beginning His slow ascent to Golgotha through the days of Holy week.

One of the hymns of the Vigil of Lazarus Saturday says that Christ “stole him from among the dead.” I rather like the phrase. Next weekend there will be no stealing, but a blasting of the gates of hell itself. What he does for Lazarus he will do for all.

Lazarus, of course, is different from those previously raised from the dead by Christ (such as the daughter of Jairus). Lazarus had been four days dead and corruption of the body had already set in. “My Lord, he stinks!” one of his sisters explained when Christ requested to be shown to the tomb.

I sat in that tomb in September 2008. It is not particularly notable as a shrine. It is today, in the possession of a private, Muslim family. You pay to get in. Several of our pilgrims did not want to pay to go in. I could not stop myself.

Lazarus is an important character in 19th century Russian literature. Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, finds the beginning of his repentance of the crime of murder, by listening to a reading of the story of Lazarus. It is, for many, and properly so, a reminder of the universal resurrection. What Christ has done for Lazarus He will do for all.

For me, he is also a sign of the universal entombment: that even before we die, we have frequently begun to inhabit our tombs. We live our life with the doors closed (and we stink). Our hearts are often places of corruption and not the habitation of the good God. Or, at best, we ask Him to visit us as He visited Lazarus. That visit brought tears to the eyes of Christ. The state of our corruption makes Him weep. It is such a contradiction to the will of God. We were not created for the tomb.

I also note that in the story of Lazarus – even in his being raised from the dead – he rises in weakness. He remains bound by his graveclothes. Someone must “unbind” him. We ourselves, having been plunged into the waters of Baptism and robed with the righteousness of Christ, too often exchange those glorious robes for graveclothes. Christ has made us alive, be we remain bound like dead men.

I sat in the tomb of Lazarus because it seemed so familiar. But there is voice that calls us all.

Comments

  1. says

    Never heard of Lazarus Saturday, but this was a great post. Do you think it is possible that Lazarus was the disciple whom Jesus loved? He seems to come into the picture just before the terminology is used and having been called forth by Jesus would sure give him the courage to be at the cross when all the other disciples had fled. It would also make sense that he would run to the tomb after having experienced something similar.

  2. Barbara says

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. This post made me weep. I am so grateful for the voice that calls us all.

  3. Darrell Lahay says

    Great pic, and thank you for your thoughts…

    Father, have you any comments on some of the speculation of this Lazarus being the same Lazarus mentioned in Luke 16 in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus?

    Shalom

  4. says

    Christ did not enter Lazarus’ tomb. We enter it today for a price of five shekels and a higher toll of willing descent into disobeying God. Until we murdered Jesus of Nazareth, he did not need to enter any tomb. Instead, Christ called Lazarus to come out. The tomb was an unnecessary place in God’s eyes, having been carved out of stone to enshrine the remains for what should never have died and decayed. But Lazarus’ body had died due to disobedience.

  5. Micah says

    Lazarus died due to disobedience, but was made alive again in Righteousness — Christ “stole him from among the dead.” I love that phrase!

  6. Carolina says

    And this is the day chosen for me to be received into the Orthodox Church. Wow! Glory to God for All Things

  7. Karen says

    Beautiful meditation, Father. Thank you.

    With regard to my question on your previous post, I had in mind where you have mentioned in different of your posts that though mankind in sin and death is being corrupted and heading toward non-existence, God is not willing to allow that even the unrighteous cease to exist. Could you clarify patristic thought on this?

  8. Darlene says

    Tomorrow, on Lazarus Saturday, I will be received into the Orthodox Church. Tonight I make my Confession before the Icon of Christ.

    Pray for me that I make a good Confession and one that is pleasing to Christ our God.

    This has been a painful journey for me, and I do not enter the Church with superficial happiness, but rather, a sober mind and heart, watchful of the enemy of my soul.

    Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!

  9. mic says

    i remember back in my Protestant days, i used to teach bible studies and every time i would come to this story i would say in a loud booming voice, “Lazarus…come forth!” i love that story!

    Anyway, Lazarus Saturday will always be special to me, as it was the day that both my wife (fiance’ at the time) and i were recieved into the Holy Orthodox Church.

    Darlene, God grant you many many blessed years! i will be praying for you.

    Blessed Lazarus Saturday to all!

    peace
    mic-

  10. says

    Praying for all who are preparing for illumination tomorrow, whether through baptism or chrismation. Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy. May God grant you MANY YEARS!

  11. katia says

    Fr Stephen bless,

    Hi Karen, hope this will help you, hope you do not mind,

    The Resurrection of the Dead will be general and simultaneous for both the righteous and sinners: “And shall come forth — those who have done good, to the resurrection of life; and those who have done evil to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:29; Acts. 24:15). But the appearance of the resurrected righteous will differ substantially from that of the resurrected sinners: “Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the Kingdom of their Father” (Mt. 13:43), said the Lord of the saved. Commenting on these words of the Savior, St. Ephraim the Syrian says that “the ones will resemble light, while the others will resemble darkness.”

    Bishop Theophan the Recluse explains: “The righteous will enter eternal life, and the satanized sinners into eternal punishment in community with the demons. Will these torments end? If satanism and becoming like satan will end, then torments may end too. But is there an end to satanism and becoming like satan? We will behold and see this then. But until then we shall believe that just as eternal life will have no end, so eternal torment that threatens sinners will also have no end. What did satan not see after his fall! How he himself was struck by the power of the Lord’s Cross! How up to now all his cunningness and malice are defeated by this power! But still he is incorrigible; he constantly opposes; and the farther he goes, the more stubborn he becomes. No, there is no hope at all for him to be corrected! … This means that there must be hell with eternal torments.”

  12. jo533281 says

    It is good to hear that there are so many received into the Church on Lazarus Saturday. It’s exciting because I will be as well, tomorrow with a friend who is like my brother. We both were lead to the Church along different paths and only later did we each realize that the other was on the journey towards the Church. Exciting as that was to know that my brother was going to be in the Church with me, it is more exciting that we will be received together on Lazarus Saturday.

    John

  13. katia says

    We know the Lord “wishes that all will be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth.” However, man, through his own free will, is capable of rejecting God’s mercy and all His means of salvation. St. John Chrysostom, explaining the depiction of the Last Judgment in the Gospel of Matthew, remarks: “When the Lord spoke of the Kingdom, He said: “Come you blessed ones, inherit the Kingdom,” and added, “Which was prepared for you from the beginning of creation. “But when He spoke of the fire, He didn’t use the same words; instead He said that it was prepared for the devil and his angels. Thus He made the Kingdom for you, but the fire not for you, but for the devil and his fallen angels.”

  14. says

    Steve and Darrell,

    The Tradition is quite clear in these identifications. Lazarus is not “the disciple whom Jesus loved” – St. John the author of the gospel is that disciple.

    Lazarus was a rich man – and therefore not at all the Lazarus in the parable, who was poor and a beggar.

    Hope that helps.

  15. says

    Karen,
    The Fathers such as St. Athanasius, when speaking of non-existence speak of a “relative” non-existence, a moving towards non-existence. Existence is God’s good gift and He does not take it away. All we can do is move away from that in our sin, but not make it utterly not be.

  16. Micah says

    Father, I can’t help but think, this Lazarus Saturday, of Christ’s words to the Church in Thyatira: “only hold on to what you have until I come”. Beautiful indeed are the feet of those who bring such tidings!

  17. katia says

    “But what shall we do if sin completely enslaves our soul, as if covering it with a tombstone; and so day after day goes by and passions start to exude their sinful stench, just as with Lazarus? What should we do then? Well, then we need confession, the sacrament which Christ established after His Resurrection, when He said to His disciples, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit: Whose so ever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven” (Jn. 20:22-23). See how all this is reflected in the resurrection of Lazarus. Lazarus, on his own, could not go out from the tomb because it was blocked by a stone. He couldn’t even walk, because he was bound hand and foot with funeral bandages. And here Christ said to His disciples, “Loose him.” In application to us, this means that the Lord orders our clergy, who have received in the Sacrament of the Priesthood the gift of the Holy Spirit, to loose our sins. What joy!”
    Archbishop Andrei Rymarenko

  18. says

    In the traditional Western Rite funeral, there is a series of censings of the body at the end, and a sprinkling with holy water, during the singing of the three antiphons interspersed between the prayers. One of the antiphons includes a line which is usually rendered as, “Thou Who didst raise Lazarus, already corrupting, from the grave…”. However, a friend of mine who has Latin tells me that this is a somewhat sanitised translation, and that a more accurate rendering would be, “Thou Who didst raise Lazarus, already stinking, from the grave…”.

    I actually quite like that. It calls our minds back to the earthiness of death and the reality of its unpleasantness, and gives us more cause to rejoice over our Saviour’s tearing us from its clutches.

    A blessed Pascha to you all!

  19. says

    While doing my meditations on this text this morning…can´t help but to reflect what it means to have “Life in Christ”…experencing a fortaste of the resurrected life now.

  20. jane says

    Dear Fr Stephen, Please could you tell me where the icon at the top of this post is from? Our parish has long been needing one and I would like to donate one, this one is very fine.
    With you I was remembering being inside the tomb of Lazarus … with many of your readers, I love your closing line, There is a voice that calls us all.

  21. Anonymous says

    Sometime in the last year, I had a vision of the sacrament of confession. When the priest proclaims you forgiven, it is exactly like as if he is calling to you come out of the tomb, just like Jesus told his friend Lazarus to come forth out of the tomb. Jesus then told the people to unbind him, because Lazarus was wrapped tightly in his burial clothing.

    This is exactly what the sacrament of confession is like. We are called forth from the dead. We are freed from death. Our penance, small as it is, frees us from the restriction of the burial clothing. The priest’s absolution frees us from the penalty of sin, which is death. We are called forth into Life.

    We are spiritually resurrected from the dead. It is no less real than Lazarus’ resurrection.

    Lord Have Mercy!

  22. maggie benson says

    Dear Fr Stephen,
    I enjoyed reading and reminiscing along with you and Jane on being inside Lazarus’ tomb … an unforgettable experience I pray I will never recuperate from!