There is one central theme to the Lazarus story: Jesus is the light and life of the world. John announces at the beginning of the story that Lazarus’ death was yet another one of the “signs” for God’s glory to shine through Jesus. The all-important thing to remember is that John is preparing us to hear and understand the meaning of Jesus’ passion and death. The church places this reading at the end of Lent just before we hear the reading of the passion on Palm/Passion Sunday.
In John’s Gospel, the Lazarus story is the longest narrative next to the passion event itself. Both stories have one who is dead for three days. Both have bereaving loved ones confused and mourning their loss. Both come back to life. The difference is that Lazarus’ recovery is a resuscitation called forth by Jesus. Lazarus will once again enter the doorway to death at life’s end. On the other hand, the recovery of Jesus is through resurrection, life after death. Still, both are accomplished by the power of the Spirit of God from within.
In the Lazarus story there are two powerful moments of healing and life. The first is heeding the voice of Jesus when he commands: “Lazarus, come out!” As Lazarus comes out from the tomb, Jesus issues another command: “Unbind him and set him free!” This is John’s way of describing the role of Jesus in a person’s faith and the role of the believing community. Jesus is fulfilling the promise of God made by Ezekiel in the first reading: “I will open your graves and bring you up from your graves.”
The second command is a command issued to the believing community. We are to unbind others and set them free. Now, at the precipice of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, let us consider metaphorically how these mysteries play out in our own lives.
Part of the human condition is to find ourselves stuck in a tomb, a grave, a dead-end street. Here we are first meant to identify those mysteries of sin, addiction, slavery, self-centredness, anti-life forces that bring us to a place where we are spiritually “dead.” In the midst of that, we are called to listen to the voice of the only one who has the power to save us. Jesus calls us out of that tomb. “Mary, Fred, Patti, Harry, Lazarus, come out!”
If we can somehow respond to this invitation, there is a community of faith that can complete the transformation by unbinding us. (Have you ever felt bound up and tied up in knots emotionally or spiritually?)
Following this path leads us then to the part of the unbinding of others and setting them free. Each of these “places” can be found in our life. We are at times in the tomb. We feel dead inside. No options, unfree, bound up tight as a coil. We have been called out of that tomb by the one whose voice is calling us into new life. This can be a challenge because there is something comfortable and familiar about the tombs we’ve created for ourselves. As painful as these tombs are, they feel comfortable, predictable, and safe. We might see the world outside of the tomb as hostile, uncontrollable and fear bids us stay where we are even though it is a painful and deathly place.
However, if we trust the call of Jesus and venture out into that world outside the tomb, we take the chance that the community of faith will respond to their call by Jesus to unbind us and through them we may experience healing, new life and a new freedom. The community of faith is meant to be there for us when we need them. You might reflect on your experiences of times of crisis when someone has been there for you, even in times of grief when another has stood by your side and wept with you. Or on the positive side, when you have felt nourished, challenged, or healed through another person. St. Paul in the second reading calls this the Spirit of life. Even though we run up against the wall of our and other’s mortality, we have within us a spirit of life, which is the life of Jesus.
We also have found ourselves in the role of the believing community of faith when we have loved in a way that unbinds others and sets them free. The journey from death to new life is difficult to understand. Sometimes it requires of us a leap of faith or an act of heroic surrender to something greater than our minds and hearts can get around. In the end, we are left with this one act of faith: “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”
At the end of my life, I want to hear that gentle, loving voice of Jesus calling me to that great “something more.” You see, part of understanding the mystery of Jesus’ death means the willingness to wrestle with our own death and the death of those we love and cherish.
This deep and mysterious story is John’s way of preparing us for the central story of the gospels, Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. As we are able to face sin and death and hear Jesus’ voice calling us out from our dark night, we will then be able to walk with him through Holy Week.
Williston gives parish missions and is a former missionary with the Redemptorists. He is also a song writer and recording artist.