It is no accident that church tradition celebrates the resurrection of Lazarus on a Saturday (Sabbath), the final day of creation, making it also a foretaste or signpost of re-creation.
It is also poetically poignant that Lazarus Saturday falls on the eve of Palm Sunday, the day Jesus set out from Bethany on a donkey to goad the great and final confrontation by which he conquered death by death.
The story is found in John’s Gospel (11:1-45) and is well worth reading slowly to catch the many nuances of meaning.
We read that Jesus, coming upon the grief of his friends Mary and Martha, the siblings of Lazarus, is himself overcome with grief. Scriptures give us that wonderful verse, “Jesus wept” (11:35), which is the perennial favourite of ambitious Sunday school children who are rewarded with a silvery star for every verse memorized.
Here we see Jesus as ‘very human’, subject to sorrow and acquainted with loss. Later, we hear Jesus cry in a loud voice, “Lazarus come forth!” (11:43). And here we see Jesus as ‘very God,’ whose word calls light out of darkness, and life out from death.
The passage also records the wonderful discourse with Martha when Jesus staggers comprehension with the claim “I AM the resurrection!” (11: 21-27). It helps to consider that the word resurrection is cognate with the word resurgence. Jesus is claiming to be (in his very being) the surprising resurgence of Life itself, which otherwise appears to have been extinguished. Ironically, it could be said that Jesus was mistakenly labeled and executed as an insurgent when he was actually a resurgent. Not appreciating the difference was a tactical error by the enemies of God, the Kingdom of Darkness, whose apparent victory at Golgotha was the very means by which it was fatally infected with the gospel virus.
But what intrigues me in this story is the meaning of two of the names mentioned in the passage. First, the name Lazarus, meaning, “God has helped,” signifying God’s orientation to the helpless. And second, Bethany, the name of the village where Lazarus lived and from which Jesus staged his triumphal entry into Jerusalem: Bethany, meaning ‘house of misery,’ or ‘poor-house.’
It is argued that Bethany was populated with the unwell and poor. This is where Simon the Leper lived. This is where the extravagance of Jesus’ anointing with expensive perfume was objected to, and which gives context to Jesus’ seemingly callous response, “the poor you’ll always have with you” (12:8). Given the attendant superstitions, alienating prejudices and wounding judgments surrounding issues of poverty and illness, it is surprising that any self-respecting sovereign would have any association whatsoever with the place, let alone calling its inhabitants friends.
Consider, then, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey – and a staggering picture starts to emerge. The unique glory of this sovereign is not in the display of disassociated splendor and power common to sovereigns of the day, but in his very com-passion with the marginalized, the miserable and the defeated. The banner of his reign could be summarized with the tag line: Lazarus Bethany! – God has helped the house of misery.
In composing this post, I started poking around the internet for icons of Lazarus. So much can be apprehended by the mediation of icons, and I have often been rewarded for sitting patiently in front of them.
The icon above caught my eye, and even though I am no skilled interpreter of art, I was immediately drawn to the contrast and tension of the image. First, central to the icon is Jesus who is stepping over a collapsed bridge, a failed infrastructure, which could perhaps symbolize religiosity or the vain pretentions of Pax Romana. To his back, huddled away from cliff edge are a group of well-dressed noblemen (Pharisee-ism?) whose callous incredulity sullies their finery. To his front, Jesus is inclined toward Lazarus, his sisters and friend Simon the Leper, contrastingly dressed in humble attire.
In his left hand Jesus raises the heraldic Cross, the emblem of his Kingdom. And in his right hand he holds the hand of lowly Lazarus who kneels on ground that is beginning to fall away.
In the background rise two mountains symbolizing the two natures of Christ: very man, and very God. And the whole image is wreathed in greenery: the fresh life of vine and leaf.
Lazarus Saturday marks a very significant shift in Lent, which is the shift into Holy Week where we suddenly slow down to real time in the unfolding drama of God’s rescue.
We have considered deeply, and repented tearfully of our collaboration with darkness. But our efforts now pale as the camera zooms in, as it were, on the passion of Christ in his final days.
There will be a real but brief celebration before all hell breaks loose.
There will be an intense increase in fury until it climaxes in the unspeakable.
And then, well… wait for it…
Bethany in the Morning
from Where the Good Way Lies, 2016
by Steve Bell & Diana Pops
Praise the lord, blessed be
who has come to help the house called Bethany
and defends those broken friends
who’ve been crying.
Comes a light, breaks the dawn
Can you feel the ray of hope for those whose hope is gone?
Lift your head, dry your eyes
Time for rising
Praise the Lord, blessed be
Who brings comfort to the very least of these
In whose hands, the journey ends,
From the east with every morn
can you hear the voice that summons up Horizon’s song?
“Lift your head, dry your eyes
time for rising”
Praise the Lord, blessed be He
Anointed in the house of misery
Who defends the humble hands
that bode His dying.
Who braved the night, retrieved the dawn
A ray of hope for those whose hope is gone
Lift your head, dry your eyes
time for rising