Saturday, 3 April 2010

The grave of Lazarus

The Raising of Lazarus, Juan de Flandes, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Patrick Comerford

1, The grave of Lazarus

Reading 1:
Luke 16: 19-31.

We have been travelling on a journey wih Christ through Holy Week. That journey to Calvary and Gethsemane begins in Bethany (Matthew 26: 6), where he was probably staying with his friends, Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus (John 12: 1). While he was staying in Bethany, he dined with Simon the Leper (Matthew 26: 6). During dinner, a woman with an alabaster jar anointed his head at the table (Matthew 26: 7), in a ritual of anointing that prefigures the anointing of the body of Jesus in preparation for his burial (Matthew 26: 12).

The anointing of Jesus during that dinner in the home of Simon triggered the excuse for Judas to betray Jesus to the authorities (Matthew 26: 14) … an excuse that he may have been looking for a long time.

In a variation on this story, Saint John tells us that on the evening before Palm Sunday, Jesus had dinner with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and Mary anointed Christ’s feet with fragrant perfume (John 12: 1-8), but once again this anointing is seen as prefiguring the anointing of his body on the day of his burial (John 12: 8).

The decision of Jesus to stay with his friends in Bethany attracts the crowds, who come not just to see Christ, but to see Lazarus, who had been raised from the dead, and this too is linked with the plot to bring about the death of Jesus.

Jesus loved Lazarus, who had died in Bethany (John 11). When Jesus arrives in Bethany, he finds Lazarus has been dead four days. Jesus comes to his tomb, and despite the objections of Martha, he has the stone rolled away, prays, and calls on Lazarus to come out. This Lazarus does, wrapped in his grave clothes.

In the Orthodox tradition, last Saturday, the day before Palm Sunday, is also known as Lazarus Saturday. The readings and hymns for Lazarus Saturday focus on the resurrection of Lazarus as a foreshadowing of the Resurrection of Christ and the General Resurrection.

The Raising of Lazarus illustrates the two natures of Christ: his humanity in weeping at the death of his friend (John 11: 35); his divinity in commanding Lazarus to come forth from the dead (John 11: 43).

There is no further mention of Lazarus in the Bible. So what happened to the tomb of Lazarus in Bethany? What happened to Lazarus himself?

Rembrandt, The raising of Lazarus, ca 1630, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The first tomb of Lazarus at Bethany (al-Eizarariya) continues to be place of pilgrimage. But of course Lazarus had to die a second (and last) time. Orthodox tradition says Lazarus went to Cyprus, where he became the first Bishop of Kittim (Larnaka). When he –finally – died, it is said Lazarus was buried in Larnaka. His body was later moved to Constantinople by the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI in 898, but it was stolen by the Crusaders in 1204 and pirated away to France as one of the spoils of war.

In the poem, “The Love Song of J. Afred Prufrock,” TS Eliot refers to Lazarus in these lines:

To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”


But Eliot is referring to the other Lazarus in the Gospel stories: Lazarus who each day sat begging outside the gate of a rich man, his sores being licked by the dogs, while inside Dives, dressed in fine clothing, is dining sumptuously each day (Luke 16: 19-31).

Both men die, but Dives would like Lazarus to come back to life. But despite what Eliot says and Dives hopes, Lazarus does not come back from the dead once he has been received into Abraham’s Bosom at the heavenly banquet. For his part, the rich man craves merely a drop of water from Lazarus’ finger to cool his tongue, for he is tormented by fire, and wants Lazarus to return and warn his wayward brothers.

Lazarus is the only character in a New Testament parable with a name. The rich man has been named Dives by tradition, but in the telling of the story he has no name: in effect, he has lost his name, and with it his human identity.

Death comes to us all. We all end in the grave. No miracles, no wishing, no praying, can take away that inevitability. Dives learns – when it is too late – what it is to be human, and that we do not come back from the grave.

This Lazarus was rewarded, not because he was poor, but for his virtuous acceptance of poverty. The rich man was punished, not because he was rich, but for his persistent neglect of the opportunities his wealth gave him.

Christ in his life points us to what it is to be truly human. In the grave, he proves he is truly human. He has died. He is dead. Unlike Lazarus the beggar, he can bridge the gap between earth and heaven, even between hell and heaven. That is what was happening this Saturday. That is what we are remembering here today. And like Lazarus of Bethany, he too is raised from death not by human power but by the power of God.

Our first piece of music to help us reflect at the grave is by Paul Spicer. Come out, Lazar is the title track on a recording last year of the shorter choral works of this English choral conductor by the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge.

I first came across Paul Spicer’s work in Lichfield where he has lived in The Close since 1990.

This anthem is a dramatic, almost apocalyptic setting for mediaeval poetry, in this case an anonymous text. This 14th century English mediaeval poem concludes:

Say me now thou serpent sly,
Is not ‘Come out!’ an asper cry?
‘Come out’ is a word of battle,
For it gan helle soon [at once] t’assail.
Why stoppest thou not, fiend, thine ear?
That this word enter not there?
He that said that word of might,
Shop him felly to the fight. [Advanced valiantly to battle.]
For with that word he won the field
Withouten spear, withouten shield,
And brought them out of prison strong,
That were enholden there with wrong.
Tell now, tyrant, where is thy might?
‘Come out!’ hath felled it all with fight.


The final triumphant section (“For with that word he won the field …”) builds up to a huge climax on the word “might,” and the final page keeps the excitement building to the end.

Music 1: Come out, Lazar (Paul Spicer, the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, 7’24”)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This is the first of three addresses in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, at a special service to mark Easter Eve on Saturday, 3 April 2010.

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