by Fr Gabriel-Allan Boyd
“Four days after he died You raised up Lazarus in Bethany. As soon as You came to the tomb, Your voice became life to the dead man; and Hades, groaning in fear, released him. Great was the miracle! Very merciful Lord, glory to You. “
~ Hymn from Lazarus Saturday
What a mind-blowing scene! Imagine, that upon hearing the voice of Christ calling for Lazarus to come out of the tomb, Hades itself groans in fear. Some of the other ancient hymns talk about Christ plundering death, and death trembling at what it knows is about to happen to it. It only serves death right, considering what death, so catastrophically does to us.
As a priest, I am blessed to be present with people, praying for them as they’re in their final stages of life. People sometimes naïvely and sentimentally talk about death as “a natural part of life,” but that’s simply not true. While it’s certainly true that death is a commonly shared experience for every human after the fall of Adam & Eve, God never made death a part of our nature. And while it’s indeed true that there are a few people, who through an extraordinary gift of God’s grace, are able to die peacefully and beautifully, the fact is, the human soul was never meant to live apart from the human body. The soul and body aren’t really separable parts as we, sometimes, unrealistically like to think of them, but rather are entirely interdependent within each person. Neither were we meant to be separated from our loved ones in this way. We were created for communion with each other. Therefore, something severe happens when the soul is torn from the body and, of course when we are separated from our loved ones at a death. That’s why, when we see someone dying, there’s usually something so very disturbing about what we’re seeing…because what’s happening is truly tragic…it’s not what we’re made to be.
When Jesus finally makes His way toward the tragic scene surrounding the death of His close friend, Lazarus has already been dead for four days. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, have been at their house offering hospitality to friends, relatives and mourners who’ve kindly come to offer their comfort. But, as soon as Martha hears the news that Jesus has finally come to be present with them, she goes to Him immediately, leaving Mary behind at home. Martha wants the chance to express her heartache to Jesus without adding to her sister, Mary’s, grief. That’s because, earlier, the sisters had sent word to Jesus, telling Him how gravely ill their brother, Lazarus was…but Jesus had sent the messenger back with the reassurance of another outcome, “This illness won’t end in death.” And Martha knows that Jesus would have certainly been able to heal her brother, if only He’d made a greater effort to show up in a timely manner. It must’ve felt, to Martha, like a betrayal of sorts…like Jesus hadn’t kept His word. Why? Because, in spite of that promise from Jesus, Lazarus died anyway. For Martha this twist must’ve compounded sorrow upon grief.
How often in life does it feel that same way to us, that Jesus hasn’t kept His promises? Jesus says He loves us, counseling us not to worry, promising to take care of all our needs…yet He allows us to suffer. Christ assures us that if we only have faith the size of a tiny mustard seed that nothing will be impossible…and yet, with as much faith as we can muster, we still can’t keep our own loved ones from getting some illness and dying; nor, when the world converges upon us with its malevolence, we simply aren’t able to move the mountains that He insists we’ll be able to move. So often, as with Martha, it can feel like Jesus never bothered to show up when we needed Him most…and in the midst of our grief we can easily feel like He’s let us down.
But when we go back to the scene of Jesus here in the presence of Martha, we soon discover that our Lord hasn’t really broken His promise to Martha and Mary. It’s just that, from His eternal perspective, He’s had something in mind that she couldn’t even begin to imagine. Our Lord has planned to use the circumstance to demonstrate that, not only does He have power over illnesses, but more importantly, He has power over death. Just as the Lord promised, Lazarus’ illness, indeed, would not end in death, because, where the Source of Life is concerned, it wasn’t yet the end. There’s a lot more to the developing story that’s far beyond Martha’s capacity to comprehend. And just as Jesus is silent when we demand answers from Him for our suffering, neither does he bother trying to explain the bigger picture to Martha.
Instead, Jesus makes a statement followed by a question that implies a demand for discipleship…both of which He continually implies to each of us today. He says, “*I* am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me will live, even if they die. Do you believe this?” He’s God’s anointed Son, who’s come into the world to liberate it from the tyrannical dominance of death. Do you believe this? And Martha decides then and there, in a public affirmation of faith, to stand at Jesus’ side, regarding Him as God’s Messiah with the power over life and death...immediately sending for Mary, who shows up in a puddle of anguished sobs. When Jesus sees her inconsolable grief, He’s moved as well. Jesus feels what death has dared to do to His beloved friends and He becomes indignant. And as our Lord comes face-to-face with the catastrophic termination of His close friend, Lazarus, now robbed of the eternal radiance meant for each person created in God’s image, He who has the power over death now becomes outraged at Hades. A tear slowly traveling down the parched face of the God/Man, He mourns at death’s spoiling of all of God’s work. “Jesus wept!”
But Jesus doesn’t just weep. With nostrils flaring, He sets His eternal gaze upon the offender, death, and gives out a mighty shout, heard across the ages. “Lazarus come forth!” As Lazarus is being brought back from the dead, the Deliverer is delivering His first of a one-two punch to Hades…where in a few days, the second punch will be in Jesus’ conquering death by His own death—when He demolishes Hades’ gates to fill it with Himself (the Source of Life), plundering it of its other captives. Already beginning to die now, death will soon be bound and trampled upon…and Hades itself groans in fear, trembling at the life that is now beginning to move and rumble within it. Hades is now being made feeble, powerless to keep its hold all those who take hold of Jesus’ hand.
We’re about to enter in and walk alongside Jesus in His final week on earth. Beginning with Lazarus Saturday, each day of this coming week, we’re given the benefit of taking Jesus’ hand right now and meditating upon exactly what He said and did for our salvation. He said and did these things to keep us from falling away into death, so that we might have His complete joy and so that we might believe.
Life throws so many distractions at us, so many things to keep us focused upon death and feeling like Jesus hasn’t kept His promises, compounding sorrow upon grief. But for our Lord, with the benefit of an eternal perspective, there’s a lot more to the story that He’s developing within us that’s far too wonderful for us to comprehend. Do you believe that He is the resurrection and the life? Then commit yourself to offer your public affirmation of faith, by standing at Jesus’ side in all of the services throughout this coming Holy Week, regarding Him as the One with the power over life and death…as Hades, even now, begins its death throes.