Lazarus Saturday: Christ’s Defiance of Death and Offer of Life

Jesus Christ identifies himself as “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). It’s a confident and bold claim, but it is one that Jesus has worked toward carefully with many bold decisions and words leading up to it. Among the most astounding of these is Christ’s decision to wait for his beloved friend Lazarus to die before responding to the pleas of Mary and Martha that Jesus come to save their brother from death. We face a dramatic series of twists and turns leading up to the moment when Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the tomb despite the worrying of some witness of that Lazarus would stink. We learn, memorably, that Jesus wept (John 11:35) in response to the weeping of Mary and those with her as she confronted Christ and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (32).

Why does Jesus Christ use his beloved friends, Lazarus, Mary and Martha to demonstrate his power over death? It is difficult to reach any other conclusion from the story than that this was a deliberate decision on the part of Jesus Christ “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (4). Ultimately, this question goes back to the question of why God creates the world. Scripture teaches that we are still children who await, and who also have collectively resisted, our full formation (as well as the final formation of our entire cosmos). Our experience of death is a merciful and also terrible result of this resistance by us to our own creation. God enters the story of struggle that we have initiated by our rebellion as the human Jesus Christ. By entering the story of death fully, Jesus reveals death’s own impermanence and final defeat entirely from within our current and incomplete story of death. We encounter life itself in Jesus Christ. These topics, however, take us too far from the story of Lazarus.

Lest we be tempted to think this a crass, calculated and unfeeling act on Christ’s part, we are told repeatedly that these three were loved by Jesus. The two sisters first send word to Christ that “he whom you love is ill” (3). Then John writes, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (5). Finally, when Jesus “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (33) and then wept himself, the crowd of witnesses cries out, “See how he loved him!” (36). Despite all of these reassurances, we may still be tempted to wonder at Christ’s calculated waiting at the start of the narrative.

What is at work, however, is not a lack of feeling but a demonstration of perspective and power. Jesus Christ is not impressed or moved by death, but Christ’s awesome power does not at all prevent him from being deeply moved by love and by compassion for the suffering of others. This lordly disregard for death itself does not prevent Jesus from suffering with his friends or with each of us. We tend to associate a calculated display of power with a cold indifference because we have hearts that are not capable of combining lordly power and deep compassion. Jesus Christ, however, was fully in possession of both. He is—as the hymns of this seasons remind us over and over—”the only lover of humankind” but also the the Lord who intentionally despoils death itself in the most flagrant way in preparation for his own upcoming death and resurrection. Another hymn from this evening taunts death directly as we sing, “Through Lazarus, O death, Christ has already despoiled you.”

Nothing gets easier after the powerful command from Jesus Christ to a long-dead corpse: “Lazarus, come out!” We have one last intimate glimpse into this scene as the dead man obeys and stands helplessly bound up and blinded before the crowd. Lazarus is able to walk out of his grave but unable to remove the cloth that covers his own face. Christ tells them to set Lazarus free, but the story does not pause for any rest or celebration. It moves immediately into meeting of the Sanhedrin who decide that this teacher has gone too far and must die. Lazarus is dramatically rescued from death itself, but Jesus has sealed his own fate at the hands of the worldly powers surrounding him. From this point on in the story, every movement that Jesus makes is watched, and there are only a few days left before the final countermove comes with the help of one in Christ’s own inner circle.

This dramatic tension extended to the friends and followers of Jesus Christ as well. Tradition tells us that the Sanhedrin not only decided that Christ must die but that Lazarus must be killed as well. According to widespread accounts from the earliest days of the church, Lazarus had to flee from his home to save his own life, and Lazarus spent the rest of his life in exile on the island of Cyprus.

We might say that all this power and triumph by Jesus does no earthly good in this case. However, the victory is so complete precisely because it comes from within. We ourselves know sin and death from the inside, but Christ joins us there and still reveals to us that only life has any true power. In his book, The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart makes the case that the followers of Jesus Christ should learn to have a similar enmity for death and evil:

We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For after all, if it is from Christ that we to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity. Sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are a part of the eternal work or purposes of God, which it is well to remember.

This is why so many of the hymns for Lazarus Saturday and then for Pascha (Easter) itself all mock death and reiterate its utter powerlessness and failure in the face of Jesus Christ. As followers of Jesus, we are called to defeat sin and death in the power of Christ and to give them no foothold in our own lives. This does not mean that we do not suffer. Clearly, we are called to suffer with Christ (even “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” as Paul writes in Colossians 1:24). In suffering with Christ, we will find that this suffering softens our hearts so that we learn to be present with others in their suffering. We will learn to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15) for blessed are “the poor in spirit” and “those who mourn” (Matthew 5:3–12). Learning this kind of compassion, however, gives no ground to sin and death. We are not stoically resigned to suffering but grateful for the life with Christ that we can enjoy even in the midst of death and in the midst of our fellowship with others in their sufferings.

As Jesus said to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26) Without fleeing from suffering and death, we can participate in Christ’s “relentless and miraculous enmity” toward sin, suffering, evil and death as we live day to day in communion with Jesus Christ.

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