First, thirst and water. Next, blindness and seeing. Today, death and new life. The church reads these major Gospels for the Elect each year, and every third year (as this year) we all get to hear them. Today’s story: The raising of Lazarus from the dead. We’re meant to learn two things from this Gospel.
First, that Jesus possesses the most amazing power in human experience: to give new life to the dead. Cultures and mythologies before and after Jesus have imagined post-death experiences for the dead and “presences” among the still-living, from ghosts and hauntings through elaborate post-death odysseys of a person’s “spirit” or “soul.” But no culture ever seems to have made or believed the easily disproved claim that a person, once truly dead, could be restored to an “ordinary” sort of life. That’s the claim this Gospel makes: Lazarus, truly and fully dead (in the tomb three days), is alive again in the same body and same sort of life that he had before. So, the Gospel writer wants us to understand, the Creator of all is truly at work in Jesus and is working to overcome our greatest and universal enemy, death.
But there’s more, when we put the story of Lazarus into the context of the entire Gospel. For the writer makes clear that what happened to Lazarus is not what happens to Jesus on Easter. Lazarus was restored to life in his “old-type” body, and (presumably) at some point died again in it. Jesus, on the other hand, is truly bodily raised – but not to the sort of body and sort of life that He had before.
You might say that the Gospel writer is preparing us, in the Lazarus story, by making a claim about humanity first; then, in the Easter story, he’s going to make a claim that is not only human but also cosmic: All creation is shown, in Jesus’s resurrection, to have a dimension that was, until that moment, hidden: that it, too, was suffering an incompleteness, a frustration of its deepest aims (parallel to the way death short-circuits human hopes); and in Jesus not only was human death and frustration overcome, but also that of all creation. (Saint Paul will write fuller descriptions of this in his letters; here, we get simply the dramatic image.)
The Elect are meant to hear in this story that Jesus can and will open the way to the fulfillment of their deepest hopes and desires, that they have nothing to fear from life’s struggles and even from its physical ending. We are reminded, as we hear the story, that the restoration of Lazarus’s human life is like a down-payment on what the Resurrection will bring: Not that Jesus will be raised to the same sort of new life as Lazarus was (that would be mere repetition, however marvelous – not the intimation of something far greater that it is): but that the entire cosmos is destined through God’s goodness for the same sort of triumph over every damaging and destructive force that seems to throw it into disarray – war, disease, even the entropy that will, without God’s saving act, lead to the eventual heat-death of the universe.
So listen and be amazed at the story of Lazarus: but also have your eyes opened and your imaginations stretched to wonder, as the Gospel-writer desires. If God can do this through Jesus, what might there be that God cannot do? Until next week, Peace.