Returning to Life: The Raising of Lazarus

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’”
John 11:25-26

Before our Lord arrives at this scene of mourning and distress, He had allowed everything to get as bad as it could possibly have gotten. Lazarus had taken ill and died. His corpse, having been anointed with aromatic spices and oils, was wrapped in a shroud, laid to rest in a tomb, which was sealed over by a heavy stone. It was all over.

All of this is an accomplished fact before the Lord even arrives—a full four days later. Many people have gathered to comfort Martha and Mary in their grief. The commotion of tragedy surrounds the sisters. And then, and only then, does the Lord arrive.

It reminds us of several episodes in the Gospels where our Lord allows things to reach a desperate pitch before He acts.

Jesus filled Peter’s fishing boats with a miraculous catch of fish that almost sank them; Jesus almost allowed another boat carrying the Apostles to sink in a bad storm, while He remained asleep in the stern. On a couple of occasions He surrounded Himself with thousands of people who ran out of food in a place where they couldn’t buy any, and at that point He provided. Jesus allowed the man born blind to be born blind.

This time, there is no almost. “Lazarus is dead,” the Lord tells His disciples. And He adds, “For your sake, I am glad I was not there.” This is God going totally contrary to everything that makes sense to human beings. We often think, “Lord, if you can, you should.” He says, “Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” If you want to walk with a God like this, you have to be ready for this question.

And this question not only opens the grave of Lazarus, it also unlocks the lesson of the miracle for us.

There are times when we think that all is lost, all of our options are exhausted—even that we have been forgotten by God. Sometimes the Lord allows things to get to a point where we are “terrified” as the Apostles were in a sinking boat, and then suddenly things change, and there is calm. But not always. At other times, the Lord asks us to accept the fact that something is at an end and will not change. And to find our peace, our “calm,” in that.

The lesson of the raising of Lazarus is not that Jesus will always intervene in such extraordinary ways in our lives. Those who are in the tombs will likely remain there. Most of the blind and crippled must remain so. What is even more important than extraordinary interventions is the ordinary ability to stand up. To stand up after repeated failures, and after experiencing life’s devastating moments, shows that we are headed toward a final rising, an ultimate resurrection, after which there will be no further danger of falling, and every tear will be wiped away.

Never despair. Lazarus was dead and decaying:
‘By now he will smell; this is the fourth day’, says Martha to Jesus.
If you hear God’s inspiration and follow it–‘Lazarus, come out!’—
you will return to Life. (The Way, no. 719)

The sensitivity that our Lord demonstrates at the tomb of Lazarus tells us all we need to know when we undergo our own trials. The Son of God weeps as He is taken to the tomb. He shares the grief, but not the hopelessness of the people who surround Him.

Jesus is your friend. The Friend. With a human heart, like yours.
With loving eyes that wept for Lazarus.
And he loves you as much as he loved Lazarus. (The Way, no. 422)

It is strangely easy to forget that our Savior can be moved as man both by human joy and sorrow. It would be good for us to remember as we enter into Passiontide that His sorrows and joys are real sorrows and joys, not put on, not just an appearance. And this compassion, like nothing else, has the power to lift us up after both falls and disappointments.
“Jesus wept,” says Bl. John Henry Newman,

…from spontaneous tenderness; from the gentleness and mercy, the encompassing loving-kindness and exuberant fostering affection of the Son of God for His own work, the race of man. Their tears touched Him at once, as their miseries had brought Him down from heaven. His ear was open to them, and the sound of weeping went at once to His heart.

Jesus has permitted absolutely everything in our lives so that we will begin to see that there is only one way out. He allowed Lazarus to die. He allowed his sisters and neighbors to mourn. They had wrapped him in burial cloths, sealed the tomb, and never thought they would see him again in this world. Everything was said and done. Everyone, including Martha and Mary, knows that it’s all over. And the only thing left to do is to weep, mourn, and console one another.

And then Jesus arrived. And there was no hope—regret, but no hope: “Lord, if you had been here,” Martha says, “my brother would not have died”—“If you had been here,” but you were not, and now there is nothing you can do. The Lord does not immediately raise her brother. He first lifts her up to faith, to trust in Him.

How many times has a version of Martha’s confusion escaped our lips? Lord, if you had prevented me from doing this or that, or prevented something from happening, I would be better off today. Newman, again, says that this is one reason why Jesus wept: He was surrounded by that age-old question of man to his God: Why? Sometimes it is asked in faith, sometimes not, but it is always asked.

We know that God is all love and all powerful. If He acts or does not act in our lives as we would expect, then His love and power are accomplishing something else, and always something greater. The raising of Lazarus is only a foreshadowing of the resurrection awaiting all who put their trust in the Lord. And that trust is often asked of us as we ourselves stand outside a tomb, or experience the aftermath of tragedy, and even the consequences of our own failures.

In a place where all seems lost, and we feel lost, the sound of Jesus’s voice finds us, the tenderness of His compassion reaches us—and with a power that makes us rise up and return to life. He awakens us to new hope, whose final fulfillment is life without end.

Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem. Rev. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem.

Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he is a formator in his community's seminary, preaches retreats, is chaplain to several communities of women religious, serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California, and is author of Praying from the Depths of the Psalms , Home Again: A Prayerful Rediscovery of Your Catholic Faith and Scatter My Darkness: Turning Night to Day with the Gospel. Father's latest book is Coached by Josemaría Escrivá (Scepter Publishers 2023). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.

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