Friday, April 07, 2006

Lazarus, Come Forth!

We are about to launch into the most important week of the liturgical year. In the Byzantine tradition, this coming weekend is kind of a festal interlude between Lent proper—which technically ends today, Holy Week being a separate liturgical entity—and the Great and Holy Week of the Passion of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. We celebrate the raising of Lazarus on the Saturday before Palm Sunday every year.

This event in the Gospel of John is a stirring testimony to faith and the power of God. Jesus worked it all to the full benefit of those whom He was trying to lead to a deeper relationship with God. When He heard that Lazarus was dying, He did not immediately rush to his side. This miracle was not going to be simply healing the sick, but raising the dead (the only such miracle recounted by John; it is the climax of Jesus’ public ministry). This mortal sickness of his friend Lazarus was meant to be “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it” (John 11:4). That can perhaps summarize the reason for writing the Gospel of John, along with the author’s own assertion that it was to lead people to faith and thus to eternal life.

The Gospel of John really is about the glory of God, especially that of the Son of God. We see Christ as one who has come from God and is going to God, who has the power to lay down his life and the power to take it up again, and the power to grant life even to the dead. But He wants his disciples and friends to believe in his power even before He dramatically exercises it. So He asked Martha if she believed that those who put their faith and trust in Him will live forever. She is thinking about the resurrection on the Last Day, but Jesus tells her that the mystery of the resurrection is standing right in front of her. “Do you believe this?” He asks her (and you). Once she makes her profession of faith, Jesus sets his face toward the tomb, to rescue his friend from the jaws of death.

Something that is perhaps unexpected happens here, given the glory and the confidence of the Son of God. It is the shortest verse of Scripture: “Jesus wept” (11:35). No explanation is given by the evangelist, only that He was troubled and deeply moved in spirit. From the crowd there are two reactions: “See how he loved him!” and the more cynical “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Both of these are true, but their interpretation is beyond human reasoning and emotion. Yes, He loved Lazarus. And yes, He could have kept him from dying. But it was because of this same love that He delayed—for the glory of God and to put Hades on notice: the days of its dominion were numbered.

But I really haven’t answered the question. Why did Jesus weep? I don’t know if anyone can answer that, for it is a secret kept within the heart of the Lover of Mankind. Some say that it was really for the crowd—because He wept when He saw Mary and the others weeping—it may have been his grief at the misery and pain the human race had been reduced to because of sin, which is the primordial cause of death. He shares the sorrow of those in pain, for He came to bear our infirmities and sufferings. In any case, the Son of God, who had power to raise the dead, was also the Son of Man, whose tender love could be moved to tears.

Then, the Lord shows how faith clears the way for the manifestation of God’s glory. Martha wavered a bit when Jesus commanded the stone to be removed from the tomb of the four-day-dead body. But Jesus made the connection for her: “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” And she did, when He cried out: “Lazarus, come forth!”

Everyone wonders what it was like for Lazarus to have gone to the netherworld and returned. I wonder, too, but I also wonder what this experience was like for Jesus. When He healed a sick woman, He said He felt power flow forth from Him (Luke 8:46). What would He have felt after calling a dead man out of the grave! We will not know that in this life, either, but we know that He turned his eyes toward Jerusalem. There was time neither for relishing the victory nor resting after the exertion. His Passion awaited Him.

Let us go with Him then, to Bethany and Lazarus’ tomb, and to Jerusalem with the adoring (yet fickle) crowd. Let us renew our faith in the Son of God, so that we may see his glory. We want to die in his grace, so that at the last day we can hear the divine and joyful cry: “(your name here), come forth!”