Fifth Sunday of Lent: The Raising of Lazarus

SCRIPTURES & ART: When Jesus invokes physical realities such as water, light and life, they are real — and they point to realities beyond themselves.

Unknown, “The Healing of the Blind Man and the Raising of Lazarus,” early 12th century
Unknown, “The Healing of the Blind Man and the Raising of Lazarus,” early 12th century (photo: Public Domain)

As previously noted, the Gospels of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent can always use the “scrutiny readings” — the readings for preparing catechumens for Easter Baptism — which happen also to be the stipulated readings for this Year A of the Sunday Lectionary. Two weeks ago, Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman pointed to the “living waters” of grace. Last week, Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind pointed to Christ as enlightening every man through Baptism. This week, Jesus’ encounter with the dead Lazarus points to God as the Source and Giver of Life … and also the foretaste of Christ’s conquest of death that we will celebrate in two weeks on Easter.

When Jesus invokes physical realities — water, light, life — they are real. They do not “just” point to something beyond themselves or “stand in” for a bigger reality. Jesus really wanted a draught of water at noontime, after traveling all morning, in Sychar. Jesus really gives the blind man physical sight. And Jesus really restores Lazarus to life.

At the same time, because they are real symbols, those realities also contain and point to realities beyond themselves. Living water is not just the refreshing liquid in Jacob’s Well — it is refreshing, sanctifying grace in the soul. Light is not just a colorful look at Siloam and its neighborhood in Jerusalem — it is seeing, with the help of God’s enlightenment, the Truth of God’s work. Life is not just Jesus’ temporary restoration to physical life (although it’s that, too) but points to his coming “so that man may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10), eternally. The Living Water of grace overcomes the consequences of sin including, eventually, even death; God’s Life-giving is to be, as St. Irenaeus put it, “fully alive” forever. And God’s Light is not just eyes to look but the wisdom to see “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” as Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel.

That Jesus wants us to draw these lessons, just as he wanted his disciple to do so, is plain. Last week, he makes clear that the encounter with the man born blind has nothing to do with “who sinned” but that “the works of God might be made visible through him.” 

Jesus intends the same thing this week. In fact, in order to ensure that “the works of God might be made visible through” Lazarus, he deliberately tarries “in the place where he was” until Lazarus is dead. This is not just going to be a healing from illness; this is going to be an epiphany of God’s power over man’s final enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26), brought on by sin: death. Jesus makes that clear: lest any disciple misinterpret him, Jesus says bluntly, “Lazarus has died.”

Now, even when Lazarus was sick, his disciples were reticent about going back to Judea, where “the Jews were just trying to stone you.” Going back there after Jesus made clear Lazarus is already a corpse made even less sense. In his own ironic style, Thomas even comments on the return trip, “’Let us also go to die with him.’”

They don’t yet have faith. Martha does, but in some vague, futuristic “resurrection on the last day.” Jesus makes clear to her that the coming of God is not some future when but rather a here-and-now who. It’s not some resurrection. “I AM the resurrection and the life,” says Jesus. No one reading the Gospel can doubt Jesus’ intent to associate himself with God’s Holy Name, given to Moses: “I AM who am” (Exodus 3:14). And only God has power over life and death.

So, Martha, do you have faith? She affirms it. Mary doesn’t even need to be asked: she just seeks out Jesus while still voicing her lament. At Jesus’ request, she takes him to the tomb … and raises her brother.

Faith remains essential. Last week, despite what they saw, the Pharisees remained willfully blind to the miraculous healing of the blind man, denying what was “right before their eyes.” This week, despite seeing a man rise from the dead on the command of this Rabbi, their conclusion is that the giver of life must be put to death (John 11:53). 

Remember Dives, the Rich Man, in hell because of his maltreatment of the beggar (also named) Lazarus? He asks that the beggar Lazarus be sent to warn his brothers to change their ways, to receive Abraham’s response: “If they do not believe Moses and the prophets, they would not believe even one who rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). 

In case you had any doubt consider: in light of the fact that the raising of Lazarus seals the fate of Jesus, Abraham was right. Three weeks ago, in the Gospel of the Transfiguration, Moses and the head of the prophets, Elijah, weighed in on Jesus’ behalf. Jesus’ own deeds bear witness to who he is and who sent him. Even the lousy Samaritans in Sychar believed more readily than those who had the Law and the Prophets. 

But it goes back all the way to Christmas. Remember the Gospel for Epiphany? The Magi arrive in Jerusalem, asking about the newborn King of the Jews. The Jerusalem establishment has the answers — they quote Micah as to where the Messiah would be born — but their reaction, knowledge withstanding, is negative: “Herod was troubled, and with him all Jerusalem.”

Even today, in the wake of the Son of God rising from the dead 2,000 years ago, he remains rejected. Even life itself becomes a principle to reject God. It happened in a town called Bethany, the home of Martha and Mary. It happens in our own day — even among those who profane the Christian name they bear — when, despite the possibilities opened up by Dobbs, there are still those who resent God’s gift of life in an unborn child, deciding instead — like Jesus — “it is better for one man to die” than their plans, expectations, or applecart be upset.

There’s a Latin expression for it: corruptio optima pessima — “the corruption of the best is the worst.” God’s best gift — life — elicits the most visceral resentments, then … and now.

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by a work from early 12th-century Spain. It’s found at the Cloisters in New York. (In case you don’t know what the Cloisters are, it is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection — one of the best in the United States — housed separately from the main collection in Manhattan up in the Bronx. It’s worth the trip!)  

I chose this fresco transferred to canvas because it alludes to the Gospels of last and this Sunday’s. On the left could be last Sunday’s Gospel: a very sparse depiction of only Jesus and the blind man, whose eyes he touches. (Because he only touches and does not smear the blind man’s eyes, I am unsure whether this is the healing of the man born blind recounted in John 9 — the Met thinks it is — or some other healing). On the right is this Sunday’s: again, the dramatis personae are few: Jesus, Mary and Martha, the rising Lazarus and the young St. John (in whose Gospel the episode is recorded). Jesus touches the tightly wrapped Lazarus with his cruciform staff, clearly indicating the theological principle that the power of conquest over sin and death is Jesus’ own Passion, Death and Resurrection. (Note also the crucifix in Christ’s halo.) Somewhat surprisingly, the other witnesses to Lazarus’ resurrection — the critical mass that begins the ferment that the Pharisees galvanize to arrest — are not shown. Would we really have expected two first-century women to roll back a tomb stone, especially when the Gospels tell us that one of the points of dispute among the women on the way to Christ’s Tomb is “who will roll away the stone for us?”

The work comes from a monastery in Castile-León, part of what is today central-northwest Spain. Castile-León was one of the earlier parts of the Iberian Peninsula to be freed from Islamic rule and one of the engines that led to the eventual religious liberation of all of Spain during the Reconquista. Typical of Gothic medieval art, the work is spare, concentrating on the critical theological points to be made, without further decoration or embellishment. The work itself is large: it measures about 5 feet by 11 feet.