Updated: Apr 16, 2020
The Raising of Lazarus
“Rembrandt painted this canvas in about 1630 when he was twenty-four. He represented here the salvation he hoped for after the harrowing despair he was so often to face: the appalling, incomprehensible deaths of one loved one after another until there was no one left.
The gospel of John describes Jesus as the most human of men, the close friend of Lazarus, Martha and Mary; maybe an all-too-human man who cried salt tears over his friend. A man so human he weeps before the pain of those who remain behind –a pain Rembrandt knew only too well after watching his mother, his father, his children, his wife, and his friends horrible crushed by illness before being snatched up in the jaws of death. Yes, the power of evil always triumphs –except that this man who weeps, all-too-human as he is, suddenly says: “I am the resurrection. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live”. And Rembrandt, who had lost so many loved ones, believes in him.
Most significant in this canvas is the play of ‘chiaroscuro’: the light that rends the shadows, the love that routs evil more powerfully than suffering suffuses the flesh, life that ultimately triumphs over death. An intense ray of light flowing from the centre left casts an oblique beam into the midst of the scene before striking the tomb of Lazarus. The dramatic darkness of the cave does not obscure the subtle colors -mauve, rose, and aqua- of the costumes or the glinting highlights of the quiver and scabbard hanging at the right. Those present at the miracle –the backlit Martha, Mary in full light, and the Jewish dignitaries– are spellbound. The figure of the Lord forms the vertical axis dividing the composition: a Jesus of human visage, still grief-stricken, but a Christ of superhuman stature. Twice the height of the other figures, his right hand masterfully raised, with the power of God he commands his friend to rise.”
1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Jesus is on the other side of the River Jordan, “where John had been baptizing”. It is understood that Jesus escaped from the hands of the Jews, who wanted to stone him (“again”?) in the Temple and had him arrested. We are not told how many times the Jews wanted to stone Jesus and how many times He had to escape from them, but it seems they were more times than what is recorded in the Gospels.
This information is important to understand why Thomas (the Twin) needs to encourage the rest of the disciples to go back to Jerusalem. This time it is not Peter who takes the initiative to show his readiness to die for Him. On this other occasion, Peter seems to be speaking in the name of the rest of the disciples.
St. John has set this passage against the background of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus.
However, we should understand that the Raising of Lazarus is not his “resurrection” from the dead. The evident difference lies in the fact that Lazarus was raised to his old way of life and he had to die a “second time”, while the resurrection from the dead implies a final raising to a glorified state of life and for eternity.
A Friendly Family
Who was the first and principle friend of Jesus in the Family of Lazarus, Martha and Mary?
John describes Bethany as Mary’s village, however, Luke says that the family house belonged to Martha and, even if John describes who Mary was (V.2) and states that Jesus loved Martha (V.5), and Lazarus to be “Mary’s brother”, the two sisters described Lazarus as “he whom you [Jesus] love” (Vv. 3).
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus praises Mary’s listening attitude (Lk.10:38ff.).
We are told how Mary might have felt really disturbed by Jesus’ delay in hurrying to Bethany. The Gospel does not talk about Mary’s feelings at this point but shows that she seems to resist going to meet Jesus when news reaches her that He had arrived, and she preferred to “stay home” (V.20). She did not move until she heard that Jesus was calling for her (V.28).
The Gospel narratives show that Bethany was close enough to Jerusalem and a place for Jesus and his disciples to pop in and enjoy a warm welcome and a family atmosphere in the house of Martha with Mary and Lazarus.
The Glorification of the Son of Man
The hour for the glorification of Jesus is being displayed in the Gospel narrative through Jesus’ signs, until the fulfillment of this hour with his Death on the Cross. Here the reasons for the glorification of the Son of Man is made clear, first by the faith awakened by the Raising of Lazarus, and secondly, by the proximity of the Passion and Death in the Cross, because, John will link directly the raising of Lazarus as one of the factors that accelerated the decision of the leaders of the Jews to kill Jesus.
Those who witness the signs of Jesus are enabled to see the display of God’s glory but not all of them, and not always. The faith awakened by the signs of Jesus in some (V.45), is the reason for others to reject and persecute him (Jn.11:46).
The Day of Lazarus’ Death
Martha and Mary sent the message to Jesus six days before Lazarus died saying that he was sick. He delayed two days “Where He was”. But, because Lazarus had been four days in the tomb on his arrival, we know that had Jesus travelled to Bethany as soon as he had received the message, Lazarus would have been dead already for two days.
Martha and Mary were sure that Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’ death (Vv.21.32) and the Jews expected this to happen, too (V.37).
However, Jesus wants to elicit a greater faith from them. The decomposition of the body would be made irreversible after four days. And while doctors could heal illnesses and ailments, cast out devils, and even if the healing of a man born blind was something unheard off, and was a unique miracle performed by Jesus; however, the raising of Lazarus demands a faith much greater than the faith to believe in “just” a healing.
This miracle excels all others because Jesus asks from Martha and Mary a greater faith, not the faith in a man who in the name of God is able to do miracles, but the faith on the God made Man who was able to give life the way only God would be able to do, by uttering His only Word.
The Light and the Darkness
John evokes the double meaning of the words of Jesus:
1. While Jesus stays in this world, the world will see the Light of God. John introduces the theme of light and darkness, very much recurrent in the meeting of Jesus with Nicodemus in Chapter 3.
2. The “sleep” is an Early Christian euphemism used to designate death. As one rises from sleep, Jesus will raise us up on the last day.
3. The expression “But let us go to him” could well explain that moving up close to Jerusalem Jesus will not only meet the dead body of his friend, but his own death as well. Darkness will fall upon earth with the Jesus’ Death.
The Dialogue with Martha
This is the kernel of the text, the invitation of Jesus to a greater faith. The original words of Martha “I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him” will need to pass the test of the unexpected offering of Jesus: to have Lazarus coming alive once again. And Martha expresses the most perfect act of faith in her creed: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world”. She immediately is given the task of being a messenger of good news to her sister Mary.
It is now the turn of Mary to come out of herself. Closed in on her own emotions, Mary hears through Martha the invitation of Jesus to meet her. She does not delay a bit, taking aback those around her who thought she suffered an attack of anxiety. Mary takes her place in front of Jesus as she had done when Jesus visited the house of Bethany, namely, at Jesus’ feet, in adoration, ready once again to listen to the Words of her Master and Lord. It was then and there that Jesus saw her weeping and He “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” and then “he wept”.
The Tomb Stone
Jesus orders the tomb stone to be removed. After his Resurrection from the dead, the stone rolled from the tomb of Jesus was the first sign that He had risen.
By his command Jesus asks for another act of faith that was unheeded. No matter how much faith those surrounding him may show, Jesus will utter the creative Word of God and bring his friend Lazarus from death to life. And the creative Word of Jesus commands that the man may be freed from the bonds that held him tight to death.
We move in a world that does not favour the gift of faith.
Jesus moves our heart to trust in the God who walks human ways, who is able to sympathize with the sufferings of the people.
We move away from selfishness and bring to our daily life the experience of the Spirit. Jesus is going to die on the Cross for us and we pray that with the strength of His Spirit we may be able to offer our service and give our lives for our brothers and sisters. In so doing, we will show how the power of the Resurrection of Christ has an effect in our lives. The transformation of society and of the world is possible.
In today’s Gospel we should not worry so much about the historical raising of Lazarus from the death as about the meaning that John gives to the narrative.
The raising of Lazarus is only a sign of something more important than the revivification of a human being, and it is the arrival of eternal life, a gift that Jesus will accomplish for us by dying on the Cross.
We contemplate Jesus walking relentlessly to Jerusalem, his resolution to die for us. Nothing will stop him from doing this, neither the threat of the Jews nor the fear that the disciples experienced.
On the way of life, and in times of crisis, Jesus is leading the disciple to a clearer understanding and to a greater awareness of his/her own faith.
Abide With Me
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.
The darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day.
Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away.
Change and decay in all around I see.
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless.
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting?
Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes.
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee.
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me
 Jn.13:38: “Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you
 Lk.10:38: “A woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary”.  Jn.2:4: “Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come”.  Jn.19:28: “Knowing that everything had now been finished”.  Jn.11:53: “So from that day on they plotted to take his life”.  Ex.14:30. The same event that saved the Israelites was the very reason for the death of the Egyptians at the crossing of the Red Sea: “That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore”.  Gen.1:26.27: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness,…’ So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”.