Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8.6-11; John 11.1-45
Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross, we may triumph in the power of his victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THE long and detailed account of Lazarus’s illness, death, and miraculous return to life (John 11.1-45) shows Jesus in the grip of conflicting emotions in a way that is not mirrored anywhere else in this Gospel. Its nearest analogues are to be found in the Synoptic Gospels’ descriptions of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26.36-46, Mark 14.26-42, Luke 22.39-46); and there is a sense in which Lazarus’s death foreshadows Jesus’s own death and resurrection.
There is nothing straightforward about this, however, and readers are left puzzling over elements that seem inconsistent with human love and friendship, and yet fit coherently into a larger picture of salvation.
John begins with a deliberate connection between Jesus’s death and that of Lazarus, with a reminder of something that has not yet happened: Mary’s anointing of Jesus, as if for burial, at dinner in Bethany (John 11.2; 12.1-8). It would not be much use to anyone hearing or reading sequentially, but John, who expects a great deal of his audience, also expects that they will re-read, or reconsider what they have heard, in the light of significant information.
That small statement will be the key to understanding why there is a delay of two days, after the urgent summons, before leaving for Bethany, even though “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11.1-6). It explains why the disciples are confused about sleeping and waking as a metaphor for death and restoration to life (John 11.11-12).
It will also account for the conversation at cross purposes between Martha and Jesus: one trusting in the “resurrection on the last day”, yet grieving for her brother; the other suggesting that the resurrection might be here and now (John 11.21-27).
This is all very well as a somewhat theoretical attempt to account for particular moments in the drama, but it is not true to human experience of grief and loss. It takes a raw and nearly inarticulate encounter to force a confrontation between the careful allusions to the resurrection — and even to Jesus as the embodiment of the resurrection (John 11.25) — and the need to acknowledge that something devastating has happened, and that people are expecting the admired teacher and close family friend to act.
Mary kneels in tears at Jesus’s feet, followed by weeping mourners. She repeats Martha’s words, but is in no state to enter into a discussion about salvation (John 11.32-33). Coming face to face with such unrestrained sorrow seems to unlock the human response in Jesus, who, John tells us twice, “was greatly disturbed” (John 11.33, 38).
He, too, begins to weep, and, because public figures are never allowed private emotions, he must mourn against the background of varying opinion: does this mean love for his friend, or are these the insincere tears of a healer who could manifestly have intervened, but did not do so (John 11.35-37)?
At last, the story approaches its denouement, and all the tensions between the present and the end of time, the public and the private, the didactic and the miraculous, are focused in the scene at the tomb. Jesus prays aloud to ensure that the crowd knows that the glory of what is about to happen belongs to God (John 11.41-42, 45). Only if they grasp that message will they believe that Jesus is sent by God.
Then he calls Lazarus, who emerges in his grave wrappings. This, Brendan Byrne suggests, marks the difference between the resurrection of Jesus and what has happened in Bethany. The empty tomb will reveal only “linen wrappings” and a folded head-cloth, flung off by Jesus (John 20.6-7). Lazarus cannot unbind himself. He must be set free (Life Abounding, Liturgical Press, 2014).
It is the paradox of this episode that the “resurrection and the life” are now (John 11.25), but their liberating power is still to be realised. Paul grasps the paradox, and turns it into another paradox. He is working to reorientate the concerns of the Roman Christians who receive his letter. What he must persuade them to believe is that, by putting God before material anxieties and “[setting] the mind on the Spirit”, they will find a proper relationship with God (Romans 8.6-8).
His message may sound ethereal; in fact, it is practical. Allowing the Spirit to dwell in the human heart brings the promise of resurrection life to the mortal body. How that mystery unfolds is described in greater details to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15).
Dr Bridget Nichols is an independent scholar.