The restoration of Lazarus to life is a powerful foreshadowing of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. St. John recounts the story in the fourth Gospel. Lazarus is ill to the point of death so his sisters, Martha and Mary, send word to Jesus to come. Jesus is away but does not return immediately on hearing the news, saying: “This illness is not to end in death but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
His reaction is similar to what he said regarding the man born blind in last Sunday’s Gospel reading. In that account he said, “Neither he nor his parents sinned: it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”
It is through the restoration of Lazarus to life, as well as the curing of the man born blind, that Jesus will offer a sign that manifests his glory. The narrative continues with Jesus’ returning to Bethany fully knowing that Lazarus has died. Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days when Jesus arrives.
Nearing the village Jesus is met by Martha. The interchange demonstrates Martha’s great faith. “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus says, “Your brother will rise.” Martha, speaking about the general resurrection, says: “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus replies, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
After this Jesus asks, “Do you believe this?” Martha says, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Martha makes a great profession of faith in Jesus. She has a clear understanding of his identity and mission.
Jesus is aware of the sorrow and grief that Martha and Mary are experiencing at the death of their brother. He, too, is overcome with sorrow for the death of his friend and with compassion for the sisters so much so, as St. John points out, that he wept. Many said in response: “See how much he loved him.”
The signs of compassion, grief and sorrow, meaningful as they are, are only a glimpse into the love the Lord has for Lazarus, his sisters and for every human being. The greatest sign of love will be the cross where Jesus will lay down his life for the world.
Jesus then goes to the tomb. The setting is very similar to the one that will claim him shortly. A large stone covers the entrance to the tomb. Jesus orders it removed at which Martha says: “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.”
The repeated time reference is for emphasis. Lazarus is not unconscious, he is not sick, he is not sleeping, he is dead. After offering a prayer to his Father, Jesus calls forth Lazarus from the tomb. He comes out bound with the burial linens and his head is covered with a cloth. Jesus then says: “Untie him and let him go.”
Jesus is “the resurrection and the life.” He has the power to restore life as he has done for Lazarus. Yet there is more. The account of Lazarus’ rising foreshadows Jesus’ own death, burial and resurrection. Lazarus needed Jesus to restore him to life. Jesus’ encounter with death will be different. When Jesus rises from the dead he destroys the power of death and his body is transformed. Death is robbed of its victory, for ever.
When St. John recounts Jesus’ tomb at the first resurrection appearance, the stone is indeed rolled back, yet no one orders it. Inside the tomb are burial cloths. In the Lazarus story, he was still bound by them. Indeed death will return for Lazarus at some point; he will indeed die again.
In Jesus’ tomb, however, the burial cloths are all that remain. They are all there. The linens that bound Jesus and the facial cloth are neatly rolled up and set aside. Jesus is risen from the dead, body and soul. Death has no power over him. He is the “resurrection and the life.”
Through Jesus the prophecy of Ezekiel is fulfilled, which says, “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them.” Jesus is the key to life. The prophecy also points to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit which will be received at Pentecost.
Though not specifically mentioned in today’s Gospel passage, Jesus promises an abiding presence with his disciples through the Paraclete. Celebrated on Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit, dwelling in and among his faithful, brings with him the life of Christ.
St. Paul describes this in his Letter to the Romans in these words: “… On the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you…. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.”
In the journey through Lent to Easter we are praying for purification. The penitential practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving assist us along the way. The end of Lent is Easter when we celebrate the paschal mystery with renewed hearts. The readings for today’s liturgy lead us in this direction. Jesus is the one in whom and through whom we have life, divine life, eternal life.
Reflecting on the mystery of our salvation in Christ and the life he won for us through his victory over sin and death helps us to live life now. In this we are strengthened for the journey of life, a life of charity modeled after Christ’s, as we pray: “By your help, we beseech you, Lord our God, may we walk eagerly in that same charity with which, out of love for the world, your Son handed himself over to death” (Collect, Fifth Sunday of Lent).
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.