Some of you have visited the Roman catacombs, those underground caverns and passageways beneath the city of Rome, where many of the first Christians are buried. Those first believers would gather there to remember their beloved dead, and they would celebrate an early form of Communion, remembering the meal Christ celebrated with his disciples and breaking bread with one another. Some of these catacombs are decorated, and there are at least 40 images showing the Raising of Lazarus. Many from the 2nd century, these images usually show just two people. They show Jesus doing the raising, and they show Lazarus being raised– Lazarus in his grave-clothes, all bandaged up, looking like a mummy. But by the 4th century, the picture changes.
The depiction changes as icons of the Raising of Lazarus still show Jesus and Lazarus, but they also begin to include Martha and Mary, Lazarus’ sisters. Also, there are the disciples, the crowd, the curious and nosey, and eventually the picture evolves to the point that usually one of the people is holding his nose. This illustrates that point that Lazarus has been dead for four days . . . and smells like it. Jesus says, “Lazarus, come out,” and Lazarus does. Jesus then says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” And so the people step forward. They do so as Sylvia Plath imagines it from Lazarus’ point of view,
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot—
The big strip tease.
These are my hands
My knees. (“Lady Lazarus”)
The story of Lazarus comes at the end of Lent to prepare us for Holy Week. It has drama. It has compelling characters. And it begins to show us how Jesus can lead us from death into new life.
In the Orthodox tradition, the story of the raising of Lazarus gets extra special treatment. The Saturday before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Saturday—the focus of the day is on this sign of the power of Jesus, of life over death, of love over despair. For the Orthodox, the week leading up to Lazarus Saturday is spent as a sort of sustained meditation upon this story.
On Monday, Jesus hears that his friend is sick.
On Tuesday, it is heard that Lazarus is very sick and is dying.
On Wednesday, Lazarus is dead and is buried.
On Thursday, it is heard that for two days, Lazarus has been dead.
On Friday, there is expectation, for tomorrow Lazarus will be raised.
And so, throughout the liturgies of the week, Christians are invited to participate in the story, to live with it for a bit, to see where the story intersects with their own lives.
And if we think about it, there probably are intersections.
Sometimes when we hear the story of Jesus raising Lazarus, we can hear it like those earliest pictures portrayed it—as something that happened between two people, between Lazarus and Jesus, between one human being and his or her understanding of God. And maybe that is the way it makes sense to you. Perhaps religion is a very private thing for you, a well-kept secret between you and God. For some, the Raising of Lazarus can be explained away. It can be “psychologized” and over-spiritualized by suggesting that Lazarus was simply very ill, had a vision of Jesus coming to him, was healed, and then told the story of his healing in such a way that it was written down and repeated.
But for me, anyway, I think the Gospel, and life itself, suggests a more literal and a more crowded picture. It’s more in keeping with those icons that show Jesus, Lazarus, Mary and Martha, and crowds of people surrounding them. Rough around the edges, disorganized, and sometimes smelly—this is where God meets us. It’s precisely in these places where we get lost in a cave, God approaches and calls us out. We’re pulled into new life by the people God has sent to us.
The cave can look very different for each of us. Sometimes it’s dark and desolate. We feel like we have no hope. It can be in a crowded room, in a well-appointed home, in what looks to the outside world as a “happy family.” But inside (and inside ourselves) we feel lost. It’s as though a part of us were dead, or were dying.
Earlier, I used a few lines from a Sylvia Plath poem, and I did so almost disingenuously. I managed to find three or four lines in the poem that are funny and in my context could almost sound light, but I did the poem and the poet a disservice, really, by lightening it up. Plath’s poem is “beyond Good Friday.” It’s filled with dark and deathly images as she recalls her own suicide attempts, frames her own experience using images from the Holocaust, and describes much more the pain and misery and confusion of death, without revealing so much as a crack in which light might break in. For her, there seemed to be no light and it would only be a year after writing this poem that Plath accomplish her goal and end her life.
God calls often, “Lazarus, Come out.” “John, come out.” Whoever you may be, whatever your name is, even if you’ve forgotten what your name sounds like on God’s lips, Come out! However dark the cave may seem, come out.
And then, God sends angels to help unbind us. Often they are disguised in the oddest ways. Sometimes God sends a stranger, or someone incredibly annoying, or a doctor, or a specialist, or a friend who calls, or a neighbor who invites us out to walk or for coffee. Maybe it’s a televangelist or an infomercial or the side of a bus or an ad on the Metro—God works in mysterious ways to call us into life.
But at some point, it’s our job to stand up. Lazarus could have gotten cozy in the cave. Who knows, he might have found it a nice escape from being bossed around by two sisters, from having to work, from having to deal with the day-to-day. He could have dreaded the attention that it would cause, if he were to walk into the light. But instead, Lazarus listened to the voice of God, he moved out, and he allowed others to unbind him.
One of my favorite books has always been Walker Percy’s The Second Coming. In it, Will Barrett decides he has had enough of life. There’s no one to look after any more. He’s basically alone. He’s bored and tired and doesn’t really see any point to it all. And so he decides to put God to the test. Barrett goes into a cave to wait God out. If God exists, Barrett think, then God can save him. If not, he will die. And so he sits. And he waits.
But just as he’s settling into the cave, he begins to feel something in his mouth. It’s a pain and it increases. A toothache takes hold, one that becomes blindingly painful. It becomes so bad that Barrett eventually climbs out of the cave. Stumbling along in the woods, he meets a young woman, Allie, who is schizophrenic. In her own way, she is recovering, and together, they help each other out of the their “caves.” They help unbind one another. They lead one another into new life.
The Raising of Lazarus gives us a foreshadowing that we, too will be raised at the last day.
But it makes another, and perhaps even more important point: Even in the cave, Jesus is with us. Even in the dark, God calls and sends help to unbind us, to free us, and to bring us again into the light.
The words from a 6th century hymn invite us to come into the open, to move toward Bethany where Lazarus was raised, and to move toward Jerusalem, where Jesus will be raised
It sings the invitation:
Let us depart the mere material world, which is always in a state of flux, and hasten to meet Christ the Savior in Bethany. Let us then dine with Him and with this friend Lazarus and the apostles so that we may, by their prayers, be delivered from our past sins. If we cleanse every stain from our hearts, we shall see perfectly his divine resurrection, which he offered to us when he took away the tears of Mary and Martha. (St. Romanos the Melodist, 6th c.)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.