Lazarus Saturday, 11 April 2020

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen!

Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday form a kind of bridge between Lent and Holy Week—and a kind of anomaly, too, in that Lazarus Saturday has all the notes of a Sunday in its celebration of the Resurrection, while Palm Sunday is not really a Sunday at all, but the Feast of the Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem. That we have passed out of Lent is made clear in one of the troparia at the Vesperal Liturgy of the Presanctified on Friday, which goes: ‘Having completed the Forty Days for profiting the soul, we beg to behold the Holy Week of your Passion by glorifying the mighty deeds you accomplished in it and your ineffable dispensation for us, singing together with one heart: Lord, glory to you!’ We are poised between Lent and Holy Week, in the hope that we are now ready to follow the ‘mighty deeds’ Christ our God accomplished in the week leading up to his death on the Cross and his Resurrection. And in this pause, as it were, in the Church’s Year, we commemorate the raising of Lazarus. The Gospel is long—almost the whole of chapter 11 of John’s Gospel—and it is remarkable, for so many reasons that I could give you a really long homily! But let us just notice two complementary things about this passage. First of all, the Jesus that we see in this chapter is deeply human. I’ve said before—in relation to Christmas and then to the Annunciation—that the Incarnation, God’s becoming a human being, is not just a matter of his acquiring a body with all its parts, and also a human soul, so that he thinks as a human being as well, it is also about God finding himself a place within the human race: inheriting, as it were, all that is involved in having a mother, a family, ancestors (think of the genealogies in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke), a cultural identity: he was a Jew, brought up worshipping in the Temple and in the still-very-new synagogues. And that meant he had friends, people who were close to him and for whom he cared. And today’s Gospel shines a light on this aspect of the Lord’s life: there were those who were his friends—the sisters Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus—and also one ‘whom he loved’, frequent unnamed presence throughout the fourth Gospel. Christians have sometimes been afraid of what are—rather forbiddingly—called ‘particular friendships’; we should love everyone equally, it is said, and have no favourites, and indeed we should, but the Lord as presented in our Gospel give little encouragement to that. Yes, we should love everyone, but if we have no special friends, as Jesus did, it is likely that our universal love for others will be a bit thin. We need those whom we cherish, hold special. And this is underlined in the Gospel we have heard: Jesus is said, at the beginning of the account, to have ‘loved’ Martha and her sister, and Lazarus. It is also made clear that Jesus is risking his life by going to Bethany: a risk underlined by Jesus’ clear realization that Lazarus is dead. When Jesus arrives at the cave in which Lazarus has been, now already for four days, it is said, ‘Jesus wept’ (in English bibles perhaps the shortest verse), and the Jews comment, ‘Look, how he loved him’. As Jesus goes up to the cave, he ‘groans in himself’. It is a rare occasion in the Gospels when such emphasis is laid on Jesus’ emotions. Then the mode changes, though it has already been anticipated in the conversation Jesus has just had with Martha. Martha had exclaimed—partly in reproach—‘Lord, if you have been here, my brother would not have died’, and goes on to say that, even so, I know that God will do what you ask of him. To which Jesus replies, ‘your brother will rise again’: a consolation Martha pushes on one side, saying, ’I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day’. To which Jesus responds directly, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life! Anyone who believes in me, even though he dies, yet will live’. Talk about the resurrection is not about some remote event in the future, but something real now. Why? ‘I am the Resurrection…’: in the Old Testament, God had revealed himself to Moses as ‘I am the one who is [or in English bibles: I am that I am’—and throughout John’s Gospel Jesus repeats this ‘I am’, ἐγω εἰμί—identifying himself with God who says, ‘I am’: I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the door of the sheep, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the true vine, and now here: ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’. In saying ἐγω εἰμί, Jesus is identifying himself with God, the creator of the world, the Redeemer of the human race. It is this that lies behind the change of mood, as Jesus approaches the cave where Lazarus has been laid, with a stone over the entrance—exactly as will happen to Jesus himself. After groaning in himself, he says, ‘Take away the stone’. Martha protests: he has been there for four days, he will stink. Jesus rather curtly responds: ‘Did I not say, that if you believe, you will see the glory of God’—and they take away the stone. Jesus goes up to the opened cave and ‘cried out with a loud voice: Lazarus, come out!’ And Lazarus comes out, struggling with the bandages wrapped round his hands and feet, and barely able to see for the cloth that is covering his face. ‘Cried with a loud voice—φωνῇ μεγάλῃ ἐκραύγασεν’: the Fathers, almost in unison, comment that this is the voice of the Creator, who in Genesis 1 creates the world by speaking: ‘And God said… and it was so’. So here, the one who says ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life’: he speaks and it is so. Resurrection is new life, new creation; not even a dead man, as Lazarus definitely was, can fail to hear that voice. But it doesn’t just say that Jesus spoke, it says: ‘he cried with a loud voice’. John, I am sure, expects his readers to know the other Gospels, which is why his account is so different: they have told us the story, John is giving us, what Clement of Alexandria called his ‘spiritual Gospel’: an account of its deeper meaning. So John expects his readers/hearers to remember another occasion on which Jesus cried with a loud voice: and that was on the cross, where Jesus’ last words are cried with a loud voice—exactly the same words, φωνῇ μεγάλῃ—and he dies (or ‘breathes his last breath’, or ‘give us, passes on, the spirit’). His last words, his last human words, were a cry of anguish. For in raising Lazarus, he is anticipating his final triumph over death—a triumph that would cost him his own life. For to call Lazarus back from the dead it to take on death, to challenge the power of death, and death will not surrender lightly: it will seem to claim yet another life on the cross, the life of Jesus himself. And yet we know that that is not the end of the story, for Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. On Lazarus Saturday, we are reminded of the power of the Resurrection, and, if we listen carefully to John’s account, of its cost: and it is that cost that is to be brought home to us as we follow our Lord’s last week of his earthly life, as he approaches his ‘voluntary passion’, his ἑκούσιον πάθος.

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