“Christ weeps at the grave of his dead friend Lazarus – what a powerful witness! He does not say, ‘Well, now he is in heaven, everything is well; he is separated from this difficult and tormented life.’ Christ does not say all those things we do in our pathetic and uncomforting attempts to console. In fact he says nothing—he weeps. And then, according to the Gospels, he raises his friend, that is, he restores him into that life from which we are supposedly to find liberation toward a higher good.” (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, O DEATH, WHERE IS THY STING?, p 25)
There was a belief in Jewish Rabbinic tradition that “sleep” defines human mortality and impermanence (My thanks to Dr. Silviu Bunta of the University of Dayton from whom I learned this fact). The fact that God could put Adam to sleep before fashioning Eve, is the sign that Adam is not divine. God’s threat to Adam that should he eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was simply another sign of Adam’s created rather than divine nature. Sleep in the scriptures is used as a euphemism for being mortal: “slept with his ancestors” means the person died. “Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death…” (Psalms 13:3) Thus while sleep is a sign of human mortality, meaning humans are not divine by nature, death is imaged as sleep. Humans cannot prevent their own death, and neither can they raise themselves from the sleep of death.
With these thoughts in mind, the Gospel Lesson of the Raising of Lazarus, shows itself to be very significant for who Jesus is, what He accomplished in His life, and also what the true meaning of being human is.
After saying this, Jesus told disciples, “’Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him’” (John 11:11-15).
Jesus in speaking of Lazarus having fallen asleep, speaks of Lazarus’ death, but also of his (fallen) human nature. Jesus weeps for His friend, the fallen human, created in God’s image, and yet mortal – asleep and incapable of waking up. Jesus goes to the tomb of Lazarus, and calls to him, as a man might call to awaken his friend:
“When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 11:43-44).
In awaking Lazarus from the dead, Jesus not only reveals His own divinity, but He also reveals again the nature of humans created in God’s image and likeness.
“Jesus answered, ‘Is it not written in your law, “I said, you are gods”? If those to whom the word of God came were called “gods”—and the scripture cannot be annulled— can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, “I am God’s Son”’?” (John 10:34-36)
The fact that Lazarus sleeps reveals the created and human nature of Jesus’ dear friend. That fact that Jesus is able to wake Lazarus from the sleep of death reveals Jesus’ divinity, but also, not only Lazarus being in God’s image but the fact that humanity was created by God to share in the divine life. Death is the fiction which separates us from God. Jesus overcomes death, that usurping jailor who held humankind captive. As a text from the Matin’s Canon for Lazarus Saturday reads:
“The deeps are afraid at Your presence, O Lord. All the waters serve You, O Source of life. The gatekeepers of Hades tremble before You, O Christ. The bars of death are broken by Your power. Lazarus rises from the grave at Your command, O almighty Savior and Lover of mankind.”
Death has something to fear – the deception is over. Death is not the final power over each human being, but rather death is merely the final enemy for God to defeat. Death and Satan are shocked to see that humans in fact have God’s image permanently imprinted on them, and that they do share in the divine life and so can break his chains and escape imprisonment in his impermanent hell. Death is trampled down by Christ’s own death, giving life to all those in the graves.