Lazarus Saturday: a signpost of re-creation

excerpted from chapter 17 of my Snippet (multi-media e-book) PilgrimYear: Lent

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.


St. Lazarus the Four-Days-Dead; friend of Christ
St. Lazarus the Four-Days-Dead; friend of Christ

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 favorite 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!”

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 – 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 was objected to, and which gives context to Jesus’ seemingly callous response, “the poor you’ll always have with you” (12:8). Given the then 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 for 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.


(Resurrection of Lazarus icon from Svaneti  – Bernoville, 1875)

While I was thinking about what to write for this [blog], I started poking around the Internet for icons of Lazarus. So much can be apprehended by the meditation 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 (Pharisees?) whose callous incredulity sullies their finery. To his front, Jesus is inclined toward Lazarus, his sisters Mary and Martha, 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.

Then, silence.

And then,


wait for it.



Music by Steve Bell. Lyric adapted with permission from Daniel Ladinski’s translation of the poem “Our Need For Thee” by Francis of Assisi

Darkness is an unlit wick
A single spark would vanquish it
Truly I could burst to flame
Every time you call my name
Do I do for you the same?

God is like a honey bee
Penetrates the soul of me
Dearly draws the sweetness in
Nectar of the meek, love is
He in me and I in him

In our ever present need of thee
Grant we fathom peace
Fashion instruments of souls set free
For don’t the caged ones weep

Sometimes sober, sometimes bliss
Every union knows of this
But I have stood here in his rain
And bear the marks of fertile plains
Swelling streams and swollen grain

So will I console the fall
Of cheerless creatures great and small
What of sadness can endure
When love divine makes insecure
The crowing claims of shame’s allure

In our ever present need of thee…


The above is taken from PilgrimYear: Lent –  a multi-media book of reflections on the church calendar year, hosted by Steve Bell.  To access the complete book online, or on mobile devices see: PilgrimYear: Lent

Pilgrim Year