Frances writes on this weekend’s readings :- Why, just before we celebrate the Lord’s Passion, should we be given this story of the raising from the dead of Lazarus? (Jn 11:1-45). Are we meant to see it as an allegory or image of Jesus’ own passion? If this is the case, how does it help us to understand that death and resurrection, for there are significant differences between the two and the implications of Jesus’ own resurrection would anyway be quite different.
Perhaps we need to start with John’s carefully laid scene, in which we are told details of the family of Lazarus and his sisters; the place, so close to Jerusalem and the Lord’s own passion; and above all, of the intense affection Jesus had for this trio. In giving us this material, surely John wants us to identify and understand what is happening; for he never just idly throws in details and those details give us hints of the significance of this supreme miracle – the raising of one dead to life and of its implications for Judaism.
Then there are the accounts of the behaviour of different people. First, the typical cluelessness of the disciples; their fear for the Lord, lest by returning to Judaea he should fall foul of the authorities who recently hounded him out of the area. They want to shield and protect him – he wants to face the Jewish authorities; the time for the show-down has come! Hence the elliptical statement about there being 12 hours in the day when one can see and the night in which one can’t, ‘without the light’. Already in John 8 Jesus had told them “I am the light of the world.” The time for him to act decisively has come and he wants to challenge the authorities! The disciples don’t understand that Lazarus is actually dead, so Jesus has to spell it out, at which point Thomas wants everyone to go up to Judaea and face the authorities, ‘to die with him’, presumably with Jesus who is in danger and an over bold statement for one who would later deny the resurrection until he had actually felt the places of the nails on Jesus’ risen body, and clearly didn’t really know what he was talking about.
Is this then a story about the gradual development of understanding and belief in the resurrection of Jesus; a story which begins with Lazarus and will only end with the much more dramatic return from death of Jesus and the beginning of the Christian community, the community of the resurrection?
Clearly the two stories differ significantly, for Lazarus would anyway die again, indeed the Jewish authorities would seek to murder him precisely because he was such a potent witness to Jesus’ power beyond death. And Jesus, as we know, was raised from the dead to live eternally and give eternal life to all. Yet resurrection ‘on the last day’, as Martha puts it, was widely accepted by Jews at this period, so why was that of Lazarus, and indeed Jesus so significant? Of course, those responsible for the death of Jesus, the Sadducees some of whom were the High Priestly family, did not accept resurrection in any shape or form, so we can see why Lazarus would have been such a problem. The majority however clearly believed in some form of ‘eternal life’ with God, but, from what we know of Jesus’ teaching, quite clearly he taught a much more intimate and lively relationship than anything most Jews believed in, as we know from Paul, we are to be made ‘heirs of God’; ‘sharers in the divine nature’.
Jesus’ conversation with Martha seems to point to the crux of the difficulty. She speaks of the resurrection of believers ‘on the last day’, but Jesus takes this belief onto an entirely new plane: “I am (the divine name) the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Thus believers in him ‘live’ whether alive or dead.
Jesus claims that in his own being, even now he has power over eternal life with God. Martha acclaims him as the Messiah, the one from God who would bring in God’s full reign on earth with all its implications in the here and now for his followers. For Jews awaiting the eschaton, the full reign of God on earth, were looking for real and material benefits in the near future, here and now on earth, and not in some far distant ghostly paradise.
Something momentous and very un-Jewish is going on, but at that point we do not quite see what it is. Everything is still left at the level of promise and expectation. But when faced with the much more raw grief of Mary things change. Jesus has spoken of his power as “I am the resurrection and the life”, now we see what that implies, as, moved by pity, he responds to Mary’s grief by raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus can and does overrule the barriers between life and death and returns Lazarus to full bodily life then and there, and by so doing speaks eloquently of his own bodily resurrection which will come about after his passion and death. In his actions, by his prayer to the Father, the ultimate glory of God is to be revealed in the Son who can raise from the dead a beloved brother and will himself rise to confound both his and God’s enemies and the power of evil.
We have come a long way from Ezekiel’s promise (Ezek 37:12-14) of hope of return to their homeland to the exiles of the Babylonian conquest in the 6th century BC. Back then, no one even believed in resurrection to eternal life, and one’s only hope was in the future, through one’s children, and the prophet gives a heartening message to the exiles. In this reading then, we find a hint of the long, long journey to God which will find its end in the resurrection of Christ. St Paul too, (Romans 8:8-11), writing from the other side of the Resurrection, reminds the Christians of Rome of the need to live their lives within the dimension of the spirit, the spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, and is even now living in them/us, despite the deadness of parts of our lives. We too, like the Roman Christians, need to remember that we are already, through the spirit, children of the resurrection.