On the Saturday before Holy Week, the Orthodox Church commemorates a major feast of the year, the miracle of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ when he raised Lazarus from the dead after he had lain in the grave four days. Here, at the end of Great Lent and the forty days of fasting and penitence, the Church combines this celebration with that of Palm Sunday. In triumph and joy, the Church bears witness to the power of Christ over death and exalts Him as King before entering the most solemn week of the year, one that leads the faithful in remembrance of His suffering and death and concludes with the great and glorious Feast of Pascha.
The story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead by Jesus Christ is found in the Gospel of John 11:1-45. Lazarus becomes ill, and his sisters, Mary and Martha send a message to Jesus stating, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” In response to the message, Jesus says, “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” (vv. 1-4).
Jesus did not immediately go to Bethany, the town where Lazarus lived with his sisters. Instead, He remained in the place where He was staying for two more days. After this time, He told his disciples that they were returning to Judea. The disciples immediately expressed their concern, stating that the Jews there had recently tried to stone Him (John 10:31). Jesus replied to His disciples, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them” (vv. 5-10).
After He said this, Jesus told his disciples that Lazarus had fallen asleep and that He was going there to wake him. The disciples wondered why He would go to wake Lazarus since it was good for him to sleep if he was ill. Jesus, however, was referring to the death of Lazarus, and thus told the disciples directly that Lazarus was dead (vv. 11-14).
When Jesus arrived at Bethany, Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Since Bethany was near Jerusalem, many of the Jews had come to console Mary and Martha. When Martha heard that Jesus was approaching she went to meet Him and said to Him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of Him.” Jesus told her that her brother will rise again. Martha said that she knew he would rise again in the resurrection on the last day. Jesus replied, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus asked Martha if she believed this. She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (vv. 17-27).
Martha returned to tell Mary that Jesus had come and was asking for her. Mary went to meet Him, and she was followed by those who were consoling her. The mourners followed her thinking that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When she came to Jesus, she fell at His feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus saw her weeping and those who were with her, and He was deeply moved. He asked to be taken to the tomb of Lazarus. As Jesus wept for Lazarus the Jews said, “See how He loved him.” Others wondered that if Jesus could open the eyes of the blind, He certainly could have kept Lazarus from dying (vv. 28-37).
Jesus came to the tomb and asked that the stone that covered the door be taken away. Martha remarked that Lazarus had now been in the tomb for four days and that there would be a stench. Jesus replied, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” The stone was taken away, and Jesus looked toward heaven and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When He had said this, He called out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus walked out of the tomb, bound with the strips of burial cloth, and Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go” (vv. 38-44).
As a result of this miracle, many of the Jews that were present believed in Jesus. Others went and told the Pharisees what Jesus had done. In response the Pharisees and chief priests met and considered how they might arrest Him and put Him to death (v. 45ff).
This miracle is performed by Christ as a reassurance to His disciples before the coming Passion: they are to understand that, though He suffers and dies, yet He is Lord and Victor over death. The resurrection of Lazarus is a prophecy in the form of an action. It foreshadows Christ’s own Resurrection eight days later, and at the same time it anticipates the resurrection of all the righteous on the Last Day: Lazarus is “the saving first-fruits of the regeneration of the world.”
As the liturgical texts emphasise, the miracle at Bethany reveals the two natures of Christ the God-man. Christ asks where Lazarus is laid and weeps for him, and so He shows the fullness of His manhood, involving as it does human ignorance and genuine grief for a beloved friend. Then, disclosing the fullness of His divine power, Christ raises Lazarus from the dead, even though his corpse has already begun to decompose and stink. This double fullness of the Lord’s divinity and His humanity is to be kept in view throughout Holy Week, and above all on Good Friday. On the Cross, we see a genuine human agony, both physical and mental, but we see more than this: we see not only suffering man but suffering God.
According to an ancient tradition, it is said that Lazarus was thirty years old when the Lord raised him; then he lived another thirty years on Cyprus and there reposed in the Lord. It is furthermore related that after he was raised from the dead, he never laughed till the end of his life, but that once only, when he saw someone stealing a clay vessel, he smiled and said, “Clay stealing clay.” His grave is situated in the city of Kition, having the inscription: “Lazarus the four days dead and friend of Christ.” In 890 his sacred relics were transferred to Constantinople by Emperor Leo the Wise, at which time undoubtedly the Emperor composed his stichera for Vespers, “Wishing to behold the tomb of Lazarus . . .”
Today is also the name day of Lazaros and Lazaria, Xronia Polla.