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.

8 comments:

  1. Thank you Father for this concise and deep article.
    Blessed Holy Week!
    Hoping your back feels better soon🙏

  2. Thank you for this wonderful meditation on the raising of Lazarus. “What Christ has done for Lazarus He will do for all.” This seems also implied in Matthew 27:52-53, which tells about the raising of many saints from the dead right after the crucifixion of Jesus. I’m wondering if this event in Matthew’s gospel appears further in Orthodox hymnography or elsewhere in the tradition. In my prior background as a Protestant, I think most people are not sure what to do with this passage and thus overlook it.

  3. Kenneth,
    I’m glad you brought up the passage in Matthew. When Christ entered death and broke its chains, people in the tombs came out. There’s a synchronicity here that Orthodox Christianity doesn’t ignore. The Orthodox recognize the ontological implications. Death is no longer what it used to be, in fact all of creation is not what it used to be, down to its most fundamental levels. ‘Christ trampled down death by death.’

    As you say, the other confessions do not see certain important aspects of these events because their theology is sufficiently different, making such interpretations difficult.

  4. Dee and Kenneth,
    Not only were there those people who came out of the tombs, but creation itself was affected. There was the earthquake and the sun being darkened, etc. This is sung about in the hymnody of Holy Week.

    The resurrection of Christ must not be seen as “isolated.” It’s effects shook everything. The same is true today in ways that we often do not see.

  5. Kenneth, even today Jesus is trampling down death by death and upon those in the tomb bestowing life. That is the message and reality and the service of the Orthodox Church in a nut shell. It is not just a pious belief. He frees us from the death of sin and our slavery to it.
    I have seen it when my late wife lay dying surrounded by people singing and praying. 30 days later on Pascha, her being raised into the Kingdom by His grace. Indeed the sorrow of the myrrhbearers is turned into joy.

    The services after Pascha are redolent with hymns attesting to it. Indeed our funeral service and our prayers for those who have reposed echo it too. We pray that they may be in a place of brightness, a place of repose, a place of verdure where all sickness, pain and sorrow have fled away. .

    Still we know the seduction of darkness and death through sin as well and the struggle we all go through. The cycle of feasts, fasts, repentance and celebration constantly reminds us and bring us balm.. None of it would mean anything but for the Truth of the Resurrection in its fullness, for all of Creation.

    All of our hymns confess and proclaim that in some way or another.

    Yet as diseased human beings surrounded by temptation and the cultural worship of sin and death it can be difficult to remember. At least it is for me. Thus I turn often to the prayer of repentance “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

  6. Indeed, Father, you expressed more definitively what I had intended to mean by the words ‘fundamental levels’ (I had meant down to the subatomic levels) I sincerely appreciate your elaboration—especially the last words which describe the impact of Christ’s resurrection as on-going for all creation— not an isolated one time event. This point is another important distinction in Orthodox theology.

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