ACCORDING to James Bond (in Ian Fleming’s novel), we only live twice: once when we are born, and once when we look death in the face. Today’s Gospel shows that it is also possible to die twice. Lazarus’s ontological essence — what kind of a thing he was — after his first death is unique. How he felt about being revived from death is not recorded; nor is how he felt about dying the second time around.
The ontology remains mysterious, not so the exemplary quality of Lazarus’s first death. The story shows the power Jesus holds over life and death, and that is important because it suggests that he could have chosen not to die. But there is also a deeper message about the nature of the resurrection life. If we want to understand that message properly, we have to turn — despite All Saints being the lightest and brightest of festivals — to darker matters.
When Paul writes about what is corruptible or perishable (1 Corinthians 15), he is talking not of moral decay, but of decomposition, the disintegration of the physical body. In Bible times, this was a process apparent to everyone. They might not have had modern science to explain the biology or chemistry or physics of the process, but they knew what it looked like.
Thus, it is not a random embarrassing detail of the scene which makes Martha (like a disinhibited elderly relative) say aloud, at her brother’s tomb, what everyone present must have been thinking. The Greek is exactly translated by the AV as saying “already he stinketh.” NRSV faces this courageously by having Martha speak of a “stench”. NIV is more euphemistic, offering “bad odour”.
The historical point of her frankness may be partly to put the fact of Lazarus’s death beyond doubt, anticipating likely doubts about the event from sceptical critics of the faith. But the theological point is different. John is trying to teach us (here, negatively; in chapter 20, positively) about the resurrection life. The physical unity of Lazarus’s earthly body — what Paul calls “the flesh” — is crumbling. Jesus has the power to call that physical stuff back into the unity that it had formerly been. Lazarus’s resurrection body — like Christ’s, like everyone else’s — would not be like that. John has no more interest in the physics of human stuff than this. Only speculation and revelation can take us further.
Providentially, r/Revelation is exactly what we get today, to reinforce the gospel message. It is a perfect pairing of a text appointed for the epistle with its Gospel for the day. At the end of time and history, chapter 21 envisages the end of death. A similar vision had once inspired Isaiah (25.7), as it still does us. In the prophet’s mind, food and drink were not pointers to moral indulgence. Instead, they were (like the resurrection body) transformed into icons of divine generosity, of the life that is promised to those who keep the faith.
This can be only because human physical disintegration has come to an end. Instead, in those words of wonderful promise to which we cleave amid trauma and bereavement, Christ will “make all things new”, in the new Jerusalem where — as John Donne wrote in 1627 — there will be “no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity”.
Reflecting on the resurrection of the body is out of fashion. Before the visible processes of dying were kept at a distance by hospitals, care homes, hospices, and undertakers, people used art and poetry to explore death (think of “Gather ye rosebuds”, or Holbein’s Ambassadors). Church monuments drove home the message that death is all around us, and that there is never a bad time to remember that in the midst of life we are in death. But on All Saints’ Sunday we remember, too, that in the midst of death we are in life.
Christians have only one way to obtain “the victor’s crown of gold”, together with that great cloud of witnesses who Christ “by faith before the world confest”. The light withers, and yet Christian hope burgeons, preparing us for life eternal, when we shall “carry up our affections to the mansions prepared for us above, where eternity is the measure, felicity is the state, angels are the company, the Lamb is the light, and God is the portion and inheritance” (Jeremy Taylor).