Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- I was intrigued, reading our Gospel of the raising of Lazarus, (John 11:1-45) to note all the time and movement references in the story. Quite often we focus on the raising from the dead of Lazarus by Our Lord, and the rest rather passes us by. So I thought this time there was an opportunity to look at things differently as this great panorama unravels before our eyes, just as the Passion will later. John’s is a powerful and magisterial Gospel which begins with his great Prologue which sets the scene for the entire work. In it we are presented with a Jesus who is in command of things from start to finish; even in his passion and death, he does not lose his control and remains a dignified and commanding figure, able to dialogue with Pilate and put him in his place, and of course he dies at the most significant of Jewish moments, the time of the slaughter of the Pascal lambs. This might lead us to think that Jesus is simply divine and untouched by earthly events, but this is not the case. Over the last two weeks we have met him with the Samaritan woman at the well, and dealing with the man born blind, and now here with the grieving sisters Martha and Mary; and in each of these encounters we meet a very human and humane Jesus, one deeply involved with suffering or with lost people. He is one who can give as good as he gets with the Samaritan, and obviously delights in the meeting of minds that involves. We feel his anger, even rage, at the ridiculous rejection by neighbours, scribes and Pharisees and ultimately even by parents as he heals the man born blind, sharing with him and through him the world’s rejection of the Messiah. And now we meet him in this great pre-run of his own death and resurrection, the raising of Lazarus.
During the Feast of the Dedication in Jerusalem (Jn 10) Jesus had fallen foul of the Jewish authorities who tried to stone him, and he escaped to the Decapolis, a pagan territory across the Jordan. This was quite a rejecting move, part of John’s story of the split between Judaism and Christianity after the Jewish Revolt. But Bethany, where Lazarus lived, was in the territory of greater Jerusalem and so Jesus must return, despite the danger, as he will later for his passion. We notice that he leaves this trip until his friend is well and truly dead and buried, and that it is only love that drives him back, indeed his love for that family and their deep and intimate care for him, as noted in the reminiscence about Mary anointing his feet and wiping them with her hair, surely a shocking and daring act of intimacy in any society, and one which marked her and Jesus out as avant-garde and dangerous. This miracle will seal his own fate. Yet Jesus insists on returning with the comment about time in verse 9, reminding them that he is ‘The light of the world’ and that darkness cannot overcome his will or his powers. John, being John, can’t resist a quip at the witless disciples misunderstanding of Jesus’ remarks so that he has to spell it out and say, ‘Lazarus is dead’. Jesus has battles to fight on more than one front! By the time they arrive in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days and the ever practical Martha greets Jesus with something suspiciously like a complaint ‘Why weren’t you here?’, and they converse about the resurrection to eternal life post mortem. Mary, on the other hand greets him later and we are told, “Fell at his feet”, indicative of her greater emotion, her grave distress, not simply at being deprived of the family’s protector and bread winner, but distraught because of her love. We are told how deeply Jesus was moved by her, and they all then move off to the tomb where Jesus prays and calls Lazarus back from the dead. What has unfolded is not simply an account of a very great miracle, but an insight into the human relationships of Jesus, as met in his encounters with one special family. Other writers like Mark will concentrate on particular miracles, but give little embellishment to the stories, so that it becomes especially important to enter into why John goes to the lengths he does to paint the picture for his hearers; and of course Lazarus does not appear in any other Gospel.
It is left to our small passage from Ezekiel (37:12-14) to draw out the significance of this great miracle. Ezekiel was one of the prophets of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE who understood precisely the appalling nature of their plight. Jerusalem had been sacked and the elite driven off into exile, thousands had been killed and enslaved and their future was without hope of redemption. Foreigners occupied their lands, and all worked for the Babylonian war machine, conquering ever more territory and seemingly holding all in its sway. And yet our prophet chooses this moment to see it as a time of hope and renewal. Israel, the entire nation, has been punished for its apostasy, its falling away from their One true God. But while they have abandoned him, God has not forsaken them, and is so great that he can bring life out of death and disaster. Our passage is part of the famous ‘dry bones’ vision, and in it we see the promise that God is Lord even of the dead, and can and will open their graves, make them live again and restore them to their homeland, and all so that Israel will finally recognise the power of their God. It is significant that our passage insists that God says ‘I shall put my spirit in you and you will live’. This is precisely Paul’s point in writing to the Christians of Rome, that bastion of paganism, insisting that it is precisely by their ‘Possession of the spirit of Christ’ that they have become what they are, set apart from their pagan neighbours and no longer like them. For like them we too are a new creation, those empowered by the spirit who already have his eternal life deep in our beings, and it is this that will guarantee our ultimate and eternal union with him. Throughout all these Readings we meet the active power of God, reaching out to his people, either to the nation as in Ezekiel, or to individuals, as in our Gospel, where it is fined down to the particular and the individual in the remarkable description of events seen almost through the camera of time and actions; and then finally pressed home to the Church in Rome by Paul, as he writes to encourage them in the difficult task of living out the community life to which they are called in a hostile city.