Lazarus Saturday: the Overwhelming Question

Hebrews 12:28-13:8; John 11:1-45; 2 Maccabees 7; Daniel 12

And would it have been worth it, after all,…
Would it have been worthwhile,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say, ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.’
(“Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”)

What is “the overwhelming question” about life and death that so many leave unspoken? Surely it includes our worry, “Does God care about us? About all that we are?” What do you suppose Lazarus could have told his sisters and the crowd about such mysterious things when he emerged from the tomb and had the winding-cloth removed? Sometimes when we listen to people in our own day talk about life after death, we find ourselves, as Christians, saying, like the voice in this poem by T. S. Eliot, “That is not what is meant. That is not it, at all!”

After all, many our contemporaries seem to think that the only hope human beings might have is some kind of spiritual “survival” after death. Popular ideas, even those held by those who claim to be Christian, frequently involve some fuzzy notion of becoming angels after death, or disembodied spirits lurking around on earth until one’s spirit is “released” to who-knows-where. But we need to strongly distinguish between the Christian hope, which first is expressed in some Old Testament books, and a more vague view of non-bodily spiritual survival. Resurrection is far more specific than a general belief in immortality. And it is a dramatic element of the last days, envisaged in, for example, the last chapter of Daniel. Here we see no division between spirit and body, no dualism: the whole person is to be raised.

That is why the historic Church does not cremate—nor do Orthodox today. The pagan world considered that the soul had to be released from the body, and fire was a fine way to do that; the Jewish and Christian hope included the body, too. They would never say, like the philosophers around them, “soma sema”—“the body is a tomb.” After all, as the old saying goes, “God does not make junk!” Certainly our present bodies are fragile, corruptible and will die: but they are created by God, and will not be merely discarded. Moreover, what we do in the body matters, and has value. We get a strong sense of this in our epistle reading for Lazarus Saturday. While the epistle recognizes that life here is fragile, and that we look forward to a future realm that is “unshakeable,” it does not dismiss what we do here and now:

Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body. Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for God will judge the immoral and adulterous….Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today and forever.

The continuity between this present life and what will come in the future, and the assurance that Jesus in the flesh is the same as the risen and glorious coming Jesus underlies our identity. This is illustrated by several great miracles performed in the Bible which involve what we could call revival, or resuscitation: God brings life back to lifeless bodies, showing that He cares not only about our spirits, but every part of us. The miracle of raising the dead is a reversal sign that shows God’s victory over all that threatens to negate His creative power. In the Old Testament, we see Elijah and Elisha raising the dead; after Jesus, Paul (in the stories of Tabitha and Eutychus) also revives those who have actually died. There is also striking metaphorical use of revival language in the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, which refers to the resuscitation of the conquered people of God, who were removed from their God-given land and estranged from Him, as well. Just as God brought his people back from exile, and re-planted them in the promised land, we can expect a great return to our original home with God on the great resurrection morning!

As a sign of our eternal hope, John’s gospel offers us the great miracle of the raising of Lazarus —a long passage that is read almost in its entirety on Lazarus Saturday. It stands, at the head of Holy Week, as a kind of precursor, a glimmering of the great Resurrection to come at Pascha.
Even the language used in this story implies that to the Lord of life, death is a sleep, from which there can be an awakening:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha…. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.”….
[T]hen he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

We know the rest of the story: how the women are mourning; how both of them say that this would not have happened had Jesus been there; how Jesus appeals to their faith; how Mary acknowledges her Jewish belief in the final resurrection at the end of time; how Jesus claims to be “the Resurrection and the Life,” who gives life to someone even though he or she dies, and how anyone who believes will not really die, not forever. Then he gives them a sign of this, showing them the “glory of God.” And Lazarus is revived—not to the glorious final state of the great resurrection, but as a sign of what is to come at the end! Jesus’ revival of Lazarus includes reversing the death process, and unbinding him from the signs of corruptibility, the grave clothes. We do not know what Lazarus might have told his sisters about what he experienced—how he heard the command of Jesus and responded, for one thing. Lazarus gives us no inside information; but the story itself speaks volumes about our humanity and about God’s love and power.

Among some contemporary liberal theologians, the idea of an actual resurrection that involves the body, like this “revival,” has had bad press. They use the term “mere resuscitation” in a scoffing way to refer to our Orthodox belief in a resurrection that involves the body. But why should we sneer at God’s ability to raise this physical flesh? Jesus gave the rising of Lazarus as an amazing sign of the care of our Creator for all that it is to be human, including our bodies. What happened to Lazarus may not have been the full thing: it seems that he died again, having had a glimpse of God’s power, and that he waits for the final day, as even we do. But Jesus’ Resurrection was not LESS than that of Lazarus: it was not simply a spiritual continuation, but is shown forth bodily, as well, when he can be touched, and can eat and drink before the disciples. Yet it is still helpful to distinguish between revival and true resurrection: Lazarus Saturday is not Pascha, nor is what happened to Lazarus as grand as what Jesus did, trampling down death by death, or what we hope for at the end, when “he will make our lowly bodies like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21).

The miracle of the raising of Lazarus, despite its incomplete nature, remains a potent sign of God’s power over the powers of darkness, and it indicates the importance of the body. It is in harmony with other things in the Bible concerning God’s care for every bit of us, and the teaching that what happens in the body matters. We might point to what seems to us a kind of bizarre “magnetic” healing process in the stories of the apostles (Acts 5:15 and 19:12), where their very shadow or articles of clothing accrue Christly power of healing Jesus’ embodied power to heal continues in his apostles. His resurrection, it is implied, has provided them with a lively power over life and death.

It may well be that some of the ancient teachers did not understand the full glory to which we are called. Much of the rhetoric of 2 Maccabees suggests that this author and his community looked forward to a simple renewal of life for the faithful. One of the brothers who was being tortured to death by the king for not breaking the Torah exclaims that he received his hands and tongue from heaven, and from God he hopes to get them back again, since “the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life” (2Ma 7:, 11, 9 RSV). Later in the story, another of the faithful, Razi(s), in a gory gesture, takes the intestines that the torturers have exposed, and throws them at the gaping crowd, telling them that God will give them back to him! It would seem that those involved in this struggle with the pagan oppressors in the second century before Christ had a very physical understanding of the resurrection, and thought that they would have returned to them the very same bodies on the last day.

As Christians, we know something more— we know that our bodies, though holy, are only “tents” and that we look forward to a temple, eternal and fit for the glorified life. This is hinted at in the last chapter of Daniel, where the wise are raised to “shine like the brightness of the sky…like the stars” (12:3). But Jesus gives us an even greater hope, doesn’t he, when he tells the righteous that they will, in the resurrection, “shine like the sun” (Matthew 13:43)? Just as Jesus’ Transfiguration, with his shining face, is a sign of what we hope for once the last enemy, death , is defeated, so the raising of Lazarus reminds us that this is a real hope that we can harbor, and not simply a spiritual and pious hope that our spirits will continue. Jesus’ Resurrection was greater than that of Lazarus; so too will ours be! But the concreteness of what Jesus did for Martha, Mary, and Lazarus stays in our imaginations and our minds. He was raised, unbound, and restored to them by the One who is the Resurrection and the Life.

Moreover, what Jesus did was not simply an enacted parable to give them hope for the final resurrection. It was a sign to give them guidance and grounding for their present life. Jesus asks Martha if she believes, and she responds, as a pattern for us: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the One who comes into the world.” The LORD whom we worship is not simply One who created and then leaves his world, not just the “Being One” but also the “Coming One” who visited His world frequently through angels and prophets, and finally took on human flesh, becoming everything that we are. Taking on our death, He exchanges it for His life, for death cannot hold Him. His victorious nature does not mean, however, that our sorrow and death is minimized by Him. On the contrary! He is “greatly troubled,” asks where Lazarus has been laid, and weeps! Finally, he shows, in a prayer of solidarity with his Father, and a word of command to Lazarus, that He holds the power of life and resurrection.

Jesus’ actions provide the pattern for us: we do not grieve as those without hope, nor do we consider the body unimportant. Hope for the resurrection does not mean that we may dismiss illness, pain and death as irrelevant. For they are very real in our present condition, and afflict all of those around us. And so, the Hebrews passage reminds us to care for those in difficult circumstances, for we too are “in the body.” Jesus, our high priest, but not unmoved by our situation, but took on our sorrows and our afflictions, so as to conquer over all that oppresses us. To believe in this Jesus, then, is to believe not only in One who is all-powerful, but who was prepared to enter into our fragility, and who cares for us. We hear that “many of the Jews… who had come with Mary and had seen what He did, believed in Him” (John 11: 45). Believing means also understanding—understanding that He has created this world, though it has been marred by sin and death; understanding that He has taken on our fragile condition, to heal us from the inside out; understanding that He has suffered everything that we could, and more; and understanding that He gives us poignant signs, including the raising of His friend Lazarus, to point our hearts and minds and imaginations to Him!

With the powerful story of Lazarus in our minds, then, we move from an overwhelming question to the beginning of an answer. And now, we may we set our faces towards Holy Week, with its intimacy, its sorrow, its scandalous but glorious cross, its mysterious visitation of those who are in prison, and its final affirmation of human life in that glorious Resurrection of Pascha!

Let us all sing a triumphant song unto God, Who has done strange wonders with His mighty arm, and has saved Israel: for He is glorified.
Glory to Thee, our God; glory to Thee.

O my Savior, Thou hast raised Lazarus who was four days dead, and freed him from corruption by Thy mighty arm; and in Thy strength Thou hast revealed Thy power.
Glory to Thee, our God; glory to Thee.

Calling Lazarus from the tomb, immediately Thou hast raised him; but Hell below lamented bitterly, and groaning, trembled at Thy power, O Savior.
Glory to Thee, our God; glory to Thee.

Thou hast shed tears for Lazarus, O Lord, thus proving that Thou hast truly taken flesh at Thine Incarnation; and that, being God by nature, Thou hast become by nature a man like us.
Glory to Thee, our God; glory to Thee.

Thou hast made the tears of Martha and Mary to cease, O Lord and Savior, by raising Lazarus from the dead, and in Thy power Thou hast endued a corpse with the breath of life.
Glory to Thee, our God; glory to Thee.

Obedient to the laws of human nature, Thou hast asked, O Master, where Lazarus was laid, showing to all, O Savior, that at Thine Incarnation Thou hast become true man for our sake.
Glory to Thee, our God; glory to Thee.

Calling Lazarus by name, Thou hast broken in pieces the bars of Hell and shaken the power of the enemy; and before Thy Crucifixion, Thou hast made him tremble because of Thee, O only Savior.
Glory to Thee, our God; glory to Thee.

O Master, Thou hast come as God to Lazarus, bound captive by Hell, and Thou hast loosed him from his fetters, for all things submit to Thy command, O Mighty Lord.
Glory to Thee, our God; glory to Thee. (Canon of the Raising of Lazarus)

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