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, but we remain bound like dead men.
I sat in the tomb of Lazarus because it seemed so familiar. But there is a voice that calls us all…
Blessed Pascha, Father
Thank you for this post. Though we have different calendars the attention to Lazarus is well worth not ignoring. We learned of Lazarus Saturday and how it is celebrated in Jerusalem from John Peterson who worships at the church I attend in Hendersonville. He was the Secretary General of the worldwide Anglican Communion for many years and a wealth of knowledge.
Wonderfully said ,I think it does us good to meditate on our mortality and corruption. Much like eating our greens it can be difficult sometimes but does good .
Blessed pascha Father .
This Lent I have been faced with the challenging proposition that if I see anything wrong im the world, it is a call to me to repent because I am, like Lazarus, stinking. For me this has meant looking at my judgement of my fellow Orthodox locally. There are some with whom I have been quietly qt war for along time. God in His mercy and the intercession of The Righteous Joseph has brought this to my attention in a healing way.
The Raising of Lazarus is still happening if not quite as dramatically as the original.
Thank you Father for your contemplation helping me to realize a bit more
Absolutely. Thank you.
Thank you Fr. Stephen. You add meaning and substance to Holy Week, which is much needed these days as very few of us actually observe the details of Lent and Holy Week.
How powerful it must have been to sit in the tomb of Lazarus, and in the very confines of his death to hear the voice of the Lord, ‘Come forth.’ It is a voice we hear in true repentance. I remember how Fr. Schmemann celebrated Lazarus Saturday embodying joy because the feast confirmed the universal resurrection, as we sing in its festal hymns. His liturgical celebration truly foreshadowed the Great Pascha. Saturday morning Matins and Liturgy were celebrated together. Only one of the six psalms, no kathisma or kathisma hymns, little litany, ‘Having beheld the Resurrection,’ Psalm 50/51, Canon with censing, little litany, ‘Holy is the Lord our God,’ Exapostilarion, Praises, Great Doxology, and Festal Troparion. Then, Liturgy began. Bright vestments. So uplifting. He used to call this weekend the celebration of a double feast, The Raising of Lazarus and Entrance into Jerusalem, because they are so integrated into the Week of Palms preceding Christ’s passion, everything foreshadowing our entrance into Pascha. Thanks for your post.
Having been a “High Anglican” before I converted to Orthodoxy – I have two experiences of Holy Week. In the West, there is a great deal of focus on the suffering and the pain. For example, the “stripping of the altar” on Maundy Thursday, can be sad, even violent to a certain degree as there is a ritual form of abandoning Christ (or something like that). In Orthodoxy, we can’t even get through Good Friday without very strong notes of the resurrection. As “sad” is the occasion is, it still has pre-echoes of Pascha. Pascha has a way of reaching backwards as well as forwards.
I have written elsewhere that the general theme of Holy Week focuses on “shame and mocking” rather than pain and suffering. That is an observation made particularly as I compare the Orthodox treatment to the meditations in the West. I think of the “Stations of the Cross” which are primarily focused on physical suffering. I am not suggesting that such meditations have no benefit – but simply that they have a different emphasis that is not very strong in the Eastern Church.
The Cross in the East – has an “eternal” aspect to it (something I will write more about as the week goes on) that does not view it as “plan b” but as the revelation of who God is. It is another reason why the penal substitutionary atonement never gained real traction in the East. Our texts just don’t support it – certainly not in the manner found in the West.
Wonderful to read. Thank you, Father Stephen.