The eleventh chapter of John’s gospel brims with riches, providing the biblical verse nearly everyone remembers, “Jesus wept,” as well as the clearest possible statement of the functional principle underlying every City of Man, “It is better for one man to die than for the people to perish.” Lazarus’ tomb is also fertile soil for midrash, the imaginative stories in which the student rubs again those irritant nodes of scripture, such as the sacrifice of Isaac, Lot’s wife, Jacob and the Angel, and Jephthah’s vow. Chesterton, Browning and Plath, among others, turned the story into poetry, while rock bands as diverse as The Boo Radleys, Carman, Chimaira, and Placebo have Lazarus songs. The Christian East, in particular, devotes significant liturgical time and theological reflection to Lazarus rising from the tomb. And, speaking of tombs, Lazarus has far better claim than most New Testament figures to more than one burial place.
Apart from story’s bold declaration of Jesus’ power over death, perhaps Lazarus intrigues us because, unlike Christ, his own rising from the dead is in the form of an unglorified, mortal body. Lazarus, who can honestly say “I have died,” will die again, while Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, is about to die once and for all. There’s a distinct bittersweetness – even a whirlwind of wonder and terror — when Lazarus emerges from the tomb, from death into life. Again, unlike the risen Christ, Lazarus needs help undoing his burial wrapping. He’s one of us, and it’s good to remember that his name in Hebrew, “El-azar,” means “God (has) helped.”
Soon enough, in Holy Week, we too will have the experience once unique to Lazarus. Having been called from death into life (in our case, through the waters of baptism) we will hear how the powers and principalities crushed Jesus in a most terrible and humiliating way. We, too, will ponder the strange story of the Magdalene, claiming to see Christ risen. And hers will only be the first. After all we’ve been through, will we find the strength to believe, to hope, to love again?
Scripture doesn’t tell us about a meeting between the risen Lazarus and the risen Christ. That’s the stuff of midrash. If it happened, what might Lazarus have said? And what about you? In that awkward encounter with the Christ in your own Easter story, what will you say?
(Originally published Saturday, March 8, 2008)