5th Sunday of Lent, John 11:1-45
I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
In order that his disciples might not despair at his death but instead might have hope in his Resurrection, our Savior manifested his divine power and authority in raising Lazarus with the simple words, Lazarus, come forth. Surely, he who not only healed the blind man and worked many other miracles, but who also raised Lazarus from the dead, surely he would also rise from the dead himself!
Historically, the raising of Lazarus from the dead marked a significant turning point in Jesus’ ministry and earthly sojourn. Coming up to Bethany, which is near Jerusalem, Christ exposed himself to the Jewish authorities who wished to put him to death. What is more, as these wicked men had already desired to murder the Christ, now their rage was transferred over to the disciples of Jesus as well – for this reason St. Thomas the Apostle said, Let us also go [to Bethany], that we may die with him. Finally, it is significant to note that it was this marvelous sign of the raising of Lazarus which led the Pharisees and the priests to take council together. Then, Caiaphas prophesied in the Spirit that Jesus should die for the nation. And not only for the nation, but to gather together in one the children of God, that were dispersed (John 11:51-52).
While Lazarus’ resuscitation was essential different from the Resurrection of the Christ, it was nevertheless given as a sign and witness of hope. Thus, a comparison of these two events – the raising of Lazarus and the Resurrection of Jesus – will help us to understand how this miracle gives witness to the greatest Miracle. Moreover, we will come to something of an understanding of certain aspects of the Resurrection itself.
Difference of time
We note the significant difference in the time of the resuscitation of Lazarus from Jesus' Resurrection. While Lazarus was raised on the fourth day after his death, the Savior rose on the third day. And this is fitting, if we consider the significance of the numbers three and four. Indeed, four signifies the things of earth and of men: There are said to be four corners to the earth, there are four cardinal virtues, and the number forty implies earthly perfection. Three, on the other hand, points to the things of heaven and of God: There are three Persons in the Most Holy Trinity and three theological virtues.
For this reason, Christ raised Lazarus on the fourth day, since it was a natural and earthly life to which the dead man was restored. This was not a resurrection, but a resuscitation: Since Lazarus would die again and did not yet enjoy the glorification of his body or soul. The Savior, however, rose on the third day, since it was to a supernatural and heavenly existence that he was restored. His rising from the dead is a true Resurrection to glory. Moreover, it should have given his disciples greater hope when they saw their Savior die – if Christ had raised Lazarus after four days, surely hope remained until the third day after his own death.
Difference of place
There is also a significant difference in place. Although both Lazarus and Christ rose from a tomb, the tomb from which Lazarus was raised was open at the moment of his resuscitation. Now it was a cave; and a stone was laid over it. Jesus saith: Take away the stone. […] They took therefore the stone away (John 11:39,41).
In the case of the Resurrection of the Lord, however, the tomb was closed when he rose from the dead. We have already discussed this point, which is not often recognized, in a previous article. Here, it will suffice simply to mention the Gospel accounts in brief. When the women came to the tomb on Eastern morning, they saw the tomb closed. But then an earthquake occurred and an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and coming, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it (Matthew 28:2). Looking within, the women saw that the Savior had already been raised. Hence, it is clear that the Lord was raised when the tomb was still closed. This, then, is the greatest proof of his Resurrection – since, if the tomb had already been open, it may have been thought that robbers took the body; but, if the tomb was closed at the time Christ rose and came forth (by walking through the wall of the tomb, as he walked through the walls of the upper-room), it was clear that the body had not been stolen, but that Jesus had indeed been raised and glorified.
Although both Lazarus and the Lord had been laid in tombs, Lazarus was resuscitated to an earthly existence and could not exit the tomb without having the bolder first rolled back. Christ, on the other hand, rose to glory and, through the power of his divinity working in and upon his glorified body, he miraculously exited the tomb by walking through the wall at some time during the night. And this brings us to another difference.
Difference of witnesses
Many witnessed the resuscitation of Lazarus: His sisters Martha and Mary, the Jews who had come, the Apostles and other disciples of Jesus, and of course Jesus himself. Of the Resurrection of the Christ, however, there was no witness. For this reason the Church sings in her Easter Exultet: O truly blessed night, which alone merited to know the time and the hour in which Christ rose from the dead!
Many saw Lazarus come forth from the tomb, resuscitated. None, however, were privileged to behold the Lord rise from the tomb, glorified. And this is fitting, since the resuscitation of Lazarus – while a great miracle – is not entirely beyond the powers of human comprehension. The Resurrection of the Savior, however, fully exceeds all human understanding – not that we cannot come to a true belief and knowledge of the fact of the Resurrection, but the mystery of the Resurrection itself is far above the reason of men and angels. As none beheld the eternal generation of the Son from the Father, so too none merited to see the raising of the Christ. This same God hath fulfilled to our children, raising up Jesus, as in the second psalm also is written: Thou are my Son, this day have I begotten thee (Acts of the Apostles 13:33).
There are, of course, many more differences besides these which we have mentioned: Lazarus’ body was decaying, while Christ’s was preserved from corruption; Lazarus rose by the power of another (Jesus), while the Lord rose by his own power as God; Lazarus remained bound in his burial garments (including the napkin upon his face), but Christ’s garments were freed from him and the napkin was folded and set aside; etc., etc. We, however, must now turn to an essential similarity – the similarity which allows us to make these comparisons.
The similarity of matter
All the many differences notwithstanding, there is an important point of similarity between the resuscitation of Lazarus and the Resurrection of the Savior: In both cases, the bodily substance which had been dead is the matter which was raised. The body of Lazarus which had been separated from his soul and was laid dead in the tomb, this very body was raised by Christ to a second earthly life. Likewise, the body of Jesus which had been separated from his soul in death and had rested in the tomb for three days, this very body was raised to glory. As there are not two bodies of Lazarus, neither are there two bodies of Christ.
This is a point which must be stressed, since today there is some tendency to think of Christ’s Resurrection in non-physical and non-material terms. Some people will speak and write as though the material body of Christ simply disappeared and ceased to exist, being replaced by a spiritual body. This cannot be the case, for we know that, even after the Resurrection, the Savior was able to eat and drink, and also that the disciples could touch and see him. We must necessarily hold as a matter of faith (expressed in the clearest of terms in the Sacred Scriptures) that the material body of the Lord was raised from the dead immortal, but not immaterial! Even now, after the Ascension, the body of our Lord is glorified and in heaven, but it is not immaterial. Indeed, if the “body” became “immaterial,” it would no longer be a “body” but would instead by a “soul.”
Lazarus’ resuscitation helps to illustrate this point most clearly. Although none witnessed the bodily Resurrection of Christ, many saw Lazarus’ flesh raised from the dead. All could see that his very same body was restored to him. None doubted that, after his resuscitation, Lazarus was still physical and material. In this respect, there is a great point of similarity between the resuscitation of Lazarus and the Resurrection of Christ.