Largely ignored by much of Christendom, the Orthodox mark the day
before Palm Sunday as “Lazarus Saturday” in something of a prequel
to the following weekend’s Pascha. It is, indeed a little Pascha
just before the greater one. And this, of course, was arranged by
Christ Himself, who raised His friend Lazarus from the dead as
something of a last action before entering Jerusalem and beginning
His slow ascent to Golgotha through the days of Holy week.
One of the hymns of the Vigil of Lazarus Saturday says that Christ
“stole him from among the dead.” I rather like the phrase. Next
weekend there will be no stealing, but a blasting of the gates of
hell itself. What he does for Lazarus he will do for all.
Lazarus, of course, is different from those previously raised from
the dead by Christ (such as the daughter of Jairus). Lazarus had
been four days dead and corruption of the body had already set in.
“My Lord, he stinks!” one of his sisters explained when Christ
requested to be shown to the tomb.
I sat in that tomb in September 2008. It is not particularly notable
as a shrine. It is today, in the possession of a private, Muslim
family. You pay to get in. Several of our pilgrims did not want to
pay to go in. I could not stop myself.
Lazarus is an important character in 19th century Russian
literature. Raskolnikov, in Crime
and Punishment, finds the beginning of his repentance of the
crime of murder, by listening to a reading of the story of Lazarus.
It is, for many, and properly so, a reminder of the universal
resurrection. What Christ has done for Lazarus He will do for all.
For me, he is also a sign of the universal entombment: that even
before we die, we have frequently begun to inhabit our tombs. We
live our life with the doors closed (and we stink). Our hearts are
often places of corruption and not the habitation of the good God.
Or, at best, we ask Him to visit us as He visited Lazarus. That
visit brought tears to the eyes of Christ. The state of our
corruption makes Him weep. It is such a contradiction to the will of
God. We were not created for the tomb.
I also note that in the story of Lazarus – even in his being raised
from the dead – he rises in weakness. He remains bound by his
graveclothes. Someone must “unbind” him. We ourselves, having been
plunged into the waters of Baptism and robed with the righteousness
of Christ, too often exchange those glorious robes for graveclothes.
Christ has made us alive, be we remain bound like dead men.
I sat in the tomb of Lazarus because it seemed so familiar. But
there is voice that calls us all.