In Him the Dead are Made Alive: The celebration of Lazarus Saturday
O Jesus, You grieve: a token of mortal essence. Your friend You revive: a token of divine potence. - Synaxarion for Lazarus Saturday
On the Saturday before Holy Week, the Orthodox Church celebrates an event of particular significance. Jesus' resurrection of his friend Lazarus, who had been dead for four days, serves as a prelude to his own resurrection. The narrative from the Gospel of John serves as one of the clearest examples who Christ is: completely God, and completely man.
The Gospel reading for this day (John 11:1-45) begins by telling us a little bit about who Lazarus is. He is the brother of Mary and Martha. Mary is the woman who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his words while Martha busied herself with the cleaning and cooking. They are from the city of Bethany, which the Gospel reading tells us is about two miles away from Jerusalem.
If you go to the Holy Lands today, you will find the city of Bethany to the east of Jerusalem. It is home to the Holy Monastery of Mary and Martha. This women's monastery is the only Christian presence in Bethany today; the metal gate to the monastery is covered in dents from rocks that locals throw at it as they pass. Despite this hostility, the monastery runs one of the only schools in the city.
Holy Monastery of Mary and Martha, Bethany
In our Gospel reading, Jesus receives a message from Mary and Martha saying that Lazarus has become ill. The message is worded in a very particular way: "He whom you love is ill." Lazarus is not simply an acquaintance of Jesus, not simply someone that Jesus was familiar with. Instead, Lazarus is someone who Jesus loves.
The Greek word for love that is used in this message refers to the kind of love that a person has for a close friend: "ὃν φιλεῖς ἀσθενεῖ". That is why Lazarus is traditionally referred to as the friend of Christ (ο φίλος του Χριστού). How amazing to think that the God who created all things, while on the one hand loving each person, in his incarnation and journey with us also had particular people who he counted as close personal friends!
When Jesus receives the news that his friend Lazarus has become ill, he responds in a way that demonstrates his absolute control over all things: "This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it." Jesus knows what is going to happen, and he reassures his Apostles that even the fallen conditions of this world-- illness and death-- are becoming occasions for God's glory to be manifested.
What happens next was not what Mary and Martha or the Apostles expected. Jesus waits. He stays where he is for two days. If he had left for Bethany as soon as he had received the message about Lazarus' illness, then he could have cured the illness in the same way that he had cured so many other illnesses. But Jesus has something else in mind, and so he does not leave immediately.
By the time Jesus and the Apostles arrive in Bethany, Lazarus has already been dead four days. That he had been dead four days is significant. In the ancient Jewish understanding of the afterlife, the spirit of the deceased person stays with the body for the first three days before finally descending into Hades on the fourth day. Jesus had raised people from the dead before, and although it was a miraculous occurrence each time, his raising of Lazarus four-days-dead shows something particularly astounding-- Jesus has power even over Hades.
Martha comes to meet Jesus as he draws near to Bethany. Their conversation shows the great turmoil that both of them are experiencing along with Jesus' understanding of what is about to happen:
Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world."
Martha has faith the her brother Lazarus will rise again in the final resurrection at the end of time. This is a kind of faith that was common at the time; any Pharisee would have agreed that all mankind will be raised from the dead at the last day. Jesus tells her to have faith in something much more immediate. "I am the resurrection and the life." The faith that Martha has in the final resurrection can now become faith in Christ himself, since God's whole plan for the salvation of the world has been realized in Christ.
The Monastery in Bethany includes a shrine marking the spot where this conversation took place.
Shrine at the Holy Monastery of Mary and Martha, Bethany
This high of a confession of Jesus' divinity is followed quickly by one of the clearest signs of his humanity. When Jesus sees the crowds mourning for Lazarus, he reacts in a way that is captured by the shortest verse in Scripture (John 11:35):
Εδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς. Jesus wept.
Jesus weeps for the death of his friend, despite knowing what he is about to do. He weeps because he sees the profound and tragic effects of suffering and death in the world, affecting even the people who he loves most, his close friends. He weeps because he is human, and human beings weep.
The hymns that we chant for Lazarus Saturday dwell on Christ's tears as the symbol of his humanity. One of the troparia from the Orthros canon says: To demonstrate Your human energy, my Savior, You walk and weep and You ask where is Lazarus; and to declare Your divinity, You raise him from the dead.
Likewise, Jesus asks where Lazarus has been buried in order to demonstrate his humanity, although he knows all things in his divinity. One of the stichera from the ainoi hymns of the Orthros service reads: O Christ, as You are the resurrection and the life of mankind, You came to the tomb of Lazarus, and demonstrated for us both of Your essences, O longsuffering One; for from the pure Virgin You have come indeed as both God and man. As a mortal You inquired where he was buried, and as God with Your life-bearing summons You resurrected him who had been four days dead.
Jesus now comes to the tomb where they had buried Lazarus. The tomb of Lazarus is a short distance to the west of the Monastery. This tomb is referred to as the first tomb of Lazarus, because although he was buried there, it was not his final resting place.
The first tomb of Lazarus, Bethany
Jesus commands that the stone be rolled away from the tomb, despite Martha's concern that there will be a bad smell. Despite her closeness to Jesus and their conversation earlier, she has still not understood Jesus' power over death. Jesus commands with a loud voice:
Λάζαρε, δεῦρο ἔξω! Lazarus, come out!
Lazarus comes forth from the tomb, still wrapped in the linens in which he had been buried.
Resurrection of Lazarus
Lazarus' resurrection is a joyful event; it is an event that brought many of those present to faith in Christ's power. It is for this reason that Lazarus Saturday is one of the only days of the year when a resurrectional service is observed on a day other than a Sunday. Every Sunday in the Orthodox Church is celebrated as a little Pascha, a day on which we commemorate and celebrate the resurrection of Christ. The services for Lazarus Saturday are observed in the same way; resurrectional hymns that are normally only sung on Sundays are sung on this day.
A traditional carol that is sung on Lazarus Saturday speaks of the rejoicing that accompanies Christ's resurrection of Lazarus:
Rejoice, rejoice, O Bethany! On this day God came to thee, God came to thee, And in Him the dead are made alive, As it is right for He is the Life.
The Tradition of the Church can give us some information about what happened to Lazarus after his resurrection. It is said that his experience in Hades changed him so much that he never smiled during the remaining thirty years of his life. The only exception to this was when he saw someone stealing a pot and, thinking about the transience of our life in the world, he smiled and remarked "the clay steals the clay."
Lazarus' presence in Bethany following his resurrection was an obstacle to those who wanted to deny Christ's power. Due to threats on his life, Lazarus was forced to leave the Holy Lands. He lived after that in Cyprus, where Sts. Barnabas and Paul appointed him as the first bishop of Kition (present-day Larnaka).
The Church which stands in Larnaka to this day is dedicated to Lazarus. In 1972, a sarcophagus was discovered under the altar of that Church with the relics of Lazarus inside. This Church is the second tomb of Lazarus.
Church of Lazarus, Larnaka, Cyprus
Second tomb of Lazarus
Relics of Lazarus
It should be noted that Martha's affirmation I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day is still true. At the end of time, Lazarus will be raised from the dead along with all the rest of us. This means that Lazarus is one of the only people in history who will experience the joy of resurrection twice. His tomb in Larnaka is not his final resting place, just as our own tombs are not our final resting places. Rather, we expect the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.
The weekend before Holy Week serves as a transition from Great Lent, with its themes of repentance and asceticism, to Holy Week, during which we commemorate Christ's passion. We turn now from mourning for our sins to mourning for Christ's betrayal and death on the Cross. The celebration of Lazarus' resurrection serves as a prelude to our celebration of Christ's resurrection and ultimate victory over death. Lazarus' resurrection reminds us that our mourning during Holy Week will be turned into the joy of the resurrection.
This expresses the χαρμολύπη, the joyful sadness that we experience this week. Like Jesus, we weep at the death of our friend. But, also like Jesus, we know that "This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it."