The basic outline of the resurrection of Lazarus is familiar enough: Jesus has retreated west of the Jordan River to the place where John baptized him, when he hears from Mary and Martha that their brother is ill. So he waits a few days – this part is shocking, but understandable – until Lazarus has died, and then goes to resurrect him, giving glory to God and bringing Mary, Martha and the disciples to a deeper faith in the process. The point being that here is a kind of preview of the death and resurrection that we will experience in him.
There’s another layer to the narrative, though, that gets hinted at throughout.
First, Jesus’ initial reply seems maybe a little dry in light of the urgent news that had come from Bethany, a two-day’s journey away. He says with noticeable lack of alarm, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” – which must have been a bit less and a bit more than what they were expecting.
There is a tinge of that, “I have come to set the world on fire, and how I wish it were already in flames!” impatience, but more muted, more compressed. Understandable: he spent thirty years watching, observing, living an ordinary life, such that no one expected to see the “carpenter’s son” making such waves. Now it’s time for action, and there’s not always time to explain everything! He sounds almost like a parent to the disciples.You don’t get it? Okay, let’s go, you’ll see.
And he is glad for the coming glory of God, but it’s not there yet. Lazarus will be resurrected, but for now he’s dead. Then Thomas says something curious and unelaborated: “Let us also go to die with him.”
Commenting on this passage at the Catholic Seniors’ Conference this past weekend, Fr. Carl Beavers s noted that when Jesus retreated to this place along the Jordan, it was to rest and bask in the serenity of the breezy locale. He was speaking from experience, having visited the Holy Land and been to the peaceful riverside. Fr. Beavers recalled that Jesus had just struggled with a thick-headed Nicodemus, and then escaped from a crowd that wanted to stone him. He probably did need a breather.
There’s a deeper significance, too. This was the place where Christ first publicly threw in his lot with us. There was no need for him to receive the baptism of repentance, but he did so “to fulfill all righteousness.” God willed that he would show his unity with a broken humanity in submitting to the baptism of John. He was not just making a guest appearance on earth only to whisk back up to heaven before getting his hands dirty. This was where he began to publicly intertwine his life with ours, and John, in turn, is alarmed for us: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?”
After the baptism, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove, and the voice of God came from the heavens, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” After humility and meekness, here is the sublime encouragement and affection of the Father. Then Jesus goes out to the desert to suffer in fasting and temptation, being steeped further into the poverty of the human condition, and being prepared for ministry.
When Jesus and the disciples get to Bethany, Martha goes out to meet him. She confides, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died, but even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Seeing the maturity of her faith, he tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,” and he asks her point-blank, “Do you believe this?”
More confidence from Martha: “Yes, Lord.” Mary, on the other hand, is more shaken. She falls at Jesus’ feet (again) and weeps, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” and stops there. She’s also confident like Martha, but overwhelmed.
The words of the Father bring up another parallel, one still to come on Mt. Tabor, where Christ is transfigured. There a voice comes from the clouds: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” More fatherly comfort, reassurance, and preparation. Shortly after, “he set his face resolutely toward Jerusalem,” where he would be crucified.
Where, despite their protests of faithfulness, Thomas’ eerie pre-notion, “Let us also go die with him,” would be reversed in their abandoning him.
Jesus knew all along that he would resurrect Lazarus. The disciples did not understand, but he gathered them up and set off resolutely toward Bethany, with what must have been an astounding equanimity. In a single curt breath, he tells them, “Our friend Lazarus… has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.”
Solid marriage advice holds that when one spouse is freaking out, the other should be calm. Christ’s calm in the midst of Martha and Mary’s grief and the disciples’ confusion is appropriate. Come, hurry, let’s go, he tells the disciples. “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”
Our night is as the day to God, he sees beyond the inexplicable. But even Christ cannot escape stumbling in the darkness, immersed as he is in our condition. His unique identity as the Father’s beloved Son is now intertwined with his unique mission as the Incarnate Word of God, come to draw us to himself. When he sees the sorrowful heart of Mary, he is “perturbed and deeply troubled.” He was composed before, but when he sees the tomb of Lazarus, he weeps. He knows that the resurrection is coming, but he is no stoic. His friend is dead, his loved ones are mourning. His heart aches with them.
After his transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, Jesus predicts his passion. He says, “The Son of Man must suffer,” by being “handed over to men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day,” and the disciples “were overwhelmed with grief” (Matt 17). It says nothing about Christ’s feelings, nothing of any trouble on his brow. Perhaps the memory of his Father’s voice was still fresh in his mind.
Then once more, when he gets to his destination, darkness: in the Garden of Gethsemane, now his own death is closer and he sweats blood as he prays. Like Mary outside of Bethany, now it’s Christ (divine, yet so much like us) who falls prostrate at the feet of the Father, so to speak, and confides his perturbed and deeply troubled heart, and his faithfulness.
The night comes. Stumbling: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
We only get glimpses of his glory in this life, and it’s enough. Not to always prevent us from being overwhelmed, not to always save us from dark nights and sweating blood, and certainly not to offer an escape from the concrete to the abstract; but to enliven us during the many trials that put us to all kinds of death. Again, Jesus observed us quietly for thirty years – he takes for granted that our lives will be filled with poverties and darkness, which he will use to draw us into himself, his life. By grace, especially since baptism, he grafts our death into his own, because we are one. By grace, his life is our life, and vice versa, because we are one. His grace is enough to make the Gospel our wise red blood.
We’re closing in on Holy Week. We started Lent with resolution, setting our face toward Jerusalem, then still a way’s away. We’ve walked in the light, and we hope to do so again in Easter’s dawn. But now, the night is near. Come, let us also go die with him.