On the Saturday preceding Palm Sunday, the Orthodox Church commemorates Christ bringing Lazarus back from the dead. This event is a foreshadowing of Christ’s greater victory over Death and Hades.
In 2020, Western Easter falls on a different date. While the Western churches celebrate Easter, Orthodoxy will be celebrating Palm Sunday. The COVID19 (coronavirus) pandemic has impacted many of us directly or indirectly. The pandemic has made us aware that the threat of death is not far away. In this time when the menace of death stares us in the face we need to hold fast to our faith in God.
The story of Lazarus’ falling ill, Jesus’ delay in coming, and Lazarus’ surprising resurrection is given in the Gospel of John 11:1-44. Lazarus’ two sisters, Martha and Mary, are depicted at the bottom of the icon above. In the Gospel narrative is an interesting exchange between Martha and Jesus.
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha said to Him, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (John 11:23-28; NKJV)
Here we see Martha moving from faith in an event to faith in a Person, Jesus Christ. Jesus’ goal here is to lead Martha (and us) to a personal trust in him. Here Saint Martha serves as an example of Christian discipleship.
The story of Lazarus teaches us about the need for faith in a time of sickness, suffering, and even death. The story also teaches us about God’s compassion in our times of suffering and confusion and darkness. The Orthodox Church sings this hymn on the Saturday of Lazarus:
O Saviour who lovest mankind, Thou hast wept over the dead, in this way showing to all the peoples that, being God, Thou hast become man for our sakes; and, shedding tears by Thine own choice, Thou hast given us proof of Thy heartfelt love. (Lenten Triodion p. 472)
Lazarus’ resurrection is significant as the first of many defeats that Christ would inflict on Hell. The Orthodox liturgy recounts in a dialogue between Hell and Lazarus:
‘I implore thee, Lazarus,’ said hell, ‘rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone. It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of all those whom I swallowed in my hunger.’ (Lenten Triodion p. 473)
Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday serve as the prelude to Orthodoxy’s Holy Week. As we progress through Holy Week, we come closer to the darkness and pain of Christ’s Passion. As Orthodox Christians we do not rush to the happy ending of Easter Sunday, rather through the Holy Week services we walk with Christ in the last days of his earthly life, then we stand patiently at the foot of the Cross with the Virgin Mary and the Apostle John (John 19:25-27). When we fall sick or experience deep pain, time seems to come to a standstill. We find ourselves waiting for God to come through for us. This waiting for God is a test of our faith in God. Holy Week is a time for waiting and a time for hoping. So likewise our life here on earth is a time of waiting and a time of hoping. We are like Jesus’ friend Lazarus who suffered sickness and death, and we are like Martha who looked forward to the hope of the resurrection.
The Lenten Triodion. 2002. Translated by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware. (pp. 472-473)