A number of the Triodion Hymns during this last week of Great Lent (“the Week of Palms”) focus on Christ raising His friend Lazarus from the dead. The hymns are very consistent with other Orthodox hymns in how they conflate eternity with time, leading us to approach the event as if it is happening before our very eyes, while simultaneously reminding us that we know how these events play out, and they have an eternal or timeless meaning. We approach the event in the hymns as if we are seeing it as it occurs (which is the liturgical way in which we “remember”events) but not as if we don’t know its outcome. Our “remembering” allows us to know the conclusion of the event from its onset. We are not pretending to re-enact the events as if we don’t know the outcome. We are entering into the events to experience them for the full revelation which God has made through them. So as we liturgically “remember” theological events we are always fully cognizant of their ultimate significance while they are unfolding. This is part of liturgical anticipation: we know and experience the eschaton now in the theological events we celebrate liturgically.
We will consider three hymns from this “Week of Palms.” The first hymn from Wednesday Matins doesn’t so much take us back in time as it does to bring the event forward into our time. Today Lazarus is buried says the hymn. This is not a past tense event. We are remembering the event and putting it into our lives today as well as acknowledging its eternal significance.
TODAY LAZARUS IS BURIED
AND HIS SISTERS SING IN LAMENTATION.
BUT IN YOUR DIVINE FOREKNOWLEDGE,
YOU HAVE PREDICTED WHAT SHOULD COME TO PASS:
LAZARUS IS SLEEPING, YOU PROPHESIED TO YOUR DISCIPLES,
BUT NOW I GO TO RAISE UP HIM WHOM I CREATED!
THEREFORE WE ALL CRY TO YOU: GLORY TO YOUR MIGHTY POWER!
We are not like the actual characters who lived this event. We are given a different perspective in which the full truth is known to us though it was not clear at that time to those who experienced it. We have a better perspective than the actual eyewitnesses! We have the mind of Christ! We understand as the narrative enters into our life as Christian community that Christ knows what He is going to do: He is going to raise Lazarus from the dead. And we know that Christ is the Creator who created Lazarus and called him into being. This was not yet fully known or understood by the disciples or by Jesus’ friends. They were in the process of learning who Jesus is. We already know, but we are able to experience these events with the eyes of faith. And, in anticipation of what we will celebrate on Lazarus Saturday we can already rejoice today.
The next hymn from Thursday Matins continues laying before us the events as they unfolded. Lazarus has been dead for a couple of days and his sisters are in grief.
LAZARUS HAS NOW BEEN DEAD FOR TWO DAYS.
HIS SISTERS MARTHA AND MARY SHED TEARS OF GRIEF FOR HIM,
GAZING AT THE STONE BEFORE HIS TOMB.
BUT THE CREATOR HAS COME WITH HIS DISCIPLES,
TO DESPOIL DEATH AND BESTOW LIFE!
THEREFORE LET US CRY OUT TO HIM:
O LORD, GLORY TO YOU!
Martha and Mary still do not know what is about to happen, be we who are remembering these events have full awareness. We see Jesus, not merely as the human friend of Lazarus, but as The Creator. Jesus Christ is the incarnate God. Christ has come not just to grieve for the loss of his friend, He comes as God to save His creature. Christ is here to destroy death and give life again to His creature who has died. The hymns, like icons, do not try to give us a photograph of the events showing us what anyone would have seen that day. Rather the hymns and icons are portraying to us the hidden spiritual dimensions of what is happening. This is God appearing on earth, with His creatures whom He loves. God incarnate is present to save humans from death and to raise them from the place of the dead. Mary and Martha stand “gazing at the stone before Lazarus’ tomb.” The stone blocks them from seeing any more. They can’t see what is going to happen. But we already know what Christ is going to do because we have the mind of Christ. That stone does not block our vision – we know Christ raises Lazarus from the dead.
The last hymn follows a particularly Orthodox way of interpreting scriptural events. It takes the events and applies them to our lives – to teach us how we might live this Gospel narrative today in our own lives. We are called to follow the example of Martha and Mary, but how can we do that since we aren’t there and live in such a different time?
FAITHFUL, LET US FOLLOW THE EXAMPLE OF MARTHA AND MARY:
LET US SEND OUR ACTS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS TO INTERCEDE BEFORE THE LORD,
THAT HE MAY COME TO RAISE UP FROM THE DEAD OUR SPIRITUAL UNDERSTANDING
WHICH LIES INSENSIBLE WITHIN THE TOMB OF NEGLIGENCE,
LACKING ALL FEELING OF THE FEAR OF GOD,
AND DEPRIVED OF LIVING ACTION.
LET US CRY: MERCIFUL LORD, AS ONCE BY YOUR DREAD AUTHORITY
YOU RAISED UP YOUR FRIEND LAZARUS,
SO NOW GIVE LIFE TO US ALL, AND GRANT US YOUR GREAT MERCY!
The hymn tells us that what we can learn from the Gospel of the raising of Lazarus is that when we perform charitable deeds or do other righteous acts, we are making an offering to God and He will bless us as He blessed Martha, Mary and Lazarus who were His friends and who lived godly lives. But the dead to be raised is not just a friend, but is our own spiritual understanding within us. When we fail to practice our faith, when we fail to imitate Christ, when we neglect our spiritual lives, our hearts and minds die spiritually. The hymn turns the raising of Lazarus from a miracle of long ago to be remembered, concerning one man, into something we all can live and experience today. Christ especially loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus, no doubt because they lived the commandments of love which He was teaching. The hymn tells us to imitate them, so that we too will be friends of Christ and that He will want to raise us up from the dead on that last day.
In this hymn the miracle of the raising of Lazarus is not something limited to that one man 2000 years ago. We each can experience a resurrection – of our own spiritual lives. The raising of Lazarus is to help us believe in Christ and to live the Gospel. It is not only a past historical event that we can marvel at, it is something which can revive our own hearts and souls and resurrect us from spiritual death.