Icon of St. Lazarus as found in the St. Lazarus Church in Larnaca, Cyprus
A church dedicated to Mary and Martha in Bethany was supposed to be the highlight of our stay in the small town near Jerusalem. Made of blocks of gray granite, an echo effect was immediately heard as we spoke to each other in our traveling group. One of our travel companions suggested we sing a song of praise in the church. The group being mostly clergy picked up on the hymn quickly, and the singing was beautiful as it echoed off the granite walls. Nevertheless, this was not the highlight of the visit to the mostly Arab village with a wall mural exhorting the virtues of Yasir Arafat—the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
As we walked down the narrow lane where the mural dominated, a woman came out of one the homes and asked if we wanted to see Lazarus’ tomb (cf. John 11:1-45). Of course, we did, travel to Bethany and not see the tomb of Lazarus would be unthinkable—at least to me it would be.
We paid the woman five shekels each, and she directed us to a hole in the floor of her home. Initially, there was some hesitance in crawling into a hole in the floor of a home in Palestinian Bethany. Nonetheless, one of the braver among us disappeared down the hole and shouted back that it was all right to follow.
When I went down into the hole, I found a landing leading to steps that took me further underground. Following the steps, I ended up at a place that apparently looked like a tomb. There was a space carved into the stone wall. In the space was a ledge on which a body could have been laid. There was no stone to roll away. Our leader told us that space was typical of first-century tombs. Whether it was not important whether this Lazarus’ tomb. What was important was we saw a place where someone had once been interned, and we were moved by the spirit of an ancient time.
Lazarus’ story becomes the legend in the Eastern and Russian Orthodox traditions. The legend is that Lazarus was the subject of persecution, possible arrest, and execution. He fled to a safer location, possibly in Asia Minor (now Turkey) and ultimately to the island of Cyprus.
While the Acts of Apostles tells of Saint Paul’s and Saint Barnabas’ travel to Cyprus, the tale told in Scripture does not mention Lazarus. Nonetheless, the Orthodox churches claim that while Paul and Barnabas were in Cyprus, they ordained Lazarus Bishop of Kition, Larnaca. The Orthodox Church maintains that in the crypt of the Saint Lazarus Church in Larnaca, the sarcophagus containing Lazarus’ remains is there. On the side of the sarcophagus is inscribed
“Lazarus four days dead and friend of Christ.”
The point is this; the story of Lazarus did not end when he walked out of the tomb in Bethany.
But what is the point of the Lazarus story? This is a drama taking us many places in fact and emotion.
- First, we know from John’s rendition of the story that Jesus deeply loved Lazarus. While it is not spelled out in the Gospel story, I think we can presume that Jesus had known Lazarus since boyhood. Likely, a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was a burden to Jesus’ family, and they could not afford accommodations in the city. Bethany is not far out of town and finding a place to stay with friends or family in Bethany was not unreasonable. Further, we can also presume that Joseph and Mary were members of a pharisaical group with a devoutly held belief in the resurrection at the Day of Judgment. Lazarus’ family probably shared this belief in common with Joseph and Mary. Thus, Jesus’ deep friendship with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.
- Second, Jesus knowledge of the danger he was in. The Pharisee leadership, the Scribes from the Temple, and the Priestly element in Jerusalem had been tracking Jesus and disciples for several months. As long as he stayed in Galilee, he would not be molested. Going into Judea and Jerusalem was a danger he was not unaware. Jesus cannot stay away from his friend. He knows the need, and Jesus knows he can meet the need. Jesus carries in his being and in his words the power of life and death. He knows the danger in being God’s voice and presence before the Pharisee and Temple operatives.
- Third, the emotion of the scene not only is mournful but it is also profoundly desperate. Jesus is so moved by the moment he weeps. He weeps for his friends, and he weeps knowing that what he is about to do will change everything. When Lazarus walks out of the tomb, the scene is set for the next tragedy and ultimately for the greater glorification of God. We see at this moment the emotional state of Jesus. When Jesus prays in the Garden of Gesthemene, those emotions will be further tested. Jesus prays that will lift the burden he is about to face. The prayer is so intense, Jesus fear so palatable, and mournful he sweats blood.
- Fourth, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. A recent CNN broadcast about Jesus has him asking Lazarus to come out, but the Gospel is clear, Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” It’s a shout that cannot be mistaken by the people there. Jesus has called on his divinity to change the rule of nature to the rule of God.
This is a story of death and resurrection. Death and resurrection have been topics of discussion since ancient times and were deeply embedded in Hellenistic that is Greek culture and philosophy. We see today, as the ancients did, the life dies at winter and regenerates in the spring. Death and resurrection are a part of our lives all the time. We see people change from self-destructive to productive, we see and experience new life as babies are born to couples, and wildlife regenerates in the forests, as farmers see their livestock replenish. In death and resurrection stories there is hope that resurrection means, like Lazarus, we will walk out of our tombs and see Jesus.
This drama of Lazarus is filled with anguish, sorrow, hope, deceit, and fear of an unknown future; it is a story of life as much as it is a story of death. Our lives are filled with much the same as the story encapsulates. In it, we learn the true nature of Jesus. He is fearful, anxious, mournful, sad, faithful, and powerful.
He is all of these things for his friend Lazarus, and he is the same for us. He knows what we face in life and fears for us, he was anxious that we will not turn to God and seeks redemption. Jesus mourns the loss of a single soul. He weeps when we turn against him and his message of love. Jesus is faithful in love for us regardless of our conditions, despairs, and disputes. Finally, in the power of God, he calls us out of our self-built tombs of doubt and fear.
Faith, hope, and love abound in this story of Lazarus, but the greatest value we find in this story is love.
Photos and Icon: Open source.