- Fr. Satish Joseph
The Death of Death: A Retelling of the Story of the Raising of Lazarus
I did not understand the commotion at home. I was barely five. I faintly remember people wrapping up abba in white linen and taking him away as the neighboring women wailed alongside my mother. I asked my brother Lazarus about it. He said that the elders had told him that dad was not coming home anymore. Lazarus was seven when dad passed away. Martha was nine. I was daddy’s little princess. I was his favorite and he told me that it was our little secret. We were not rich but he never denied me anything I asked. I just did not understand why dad would not return.
Mother was so distraught at dad’s passing away that I spent most of next month with Martha. It was as if I had lost my father and my mother. In fact, when I was nineteen mother also passed away. She became gravely ill with fever. Unlike when my dad died, I remember everything about this day. Not only did I know that mom was not coming back anymore, but I also knew the reason. Death's destructive sting had devastated us twice. Even though I was older, and in realty the more mature of the three, mom’s passing away took its toll on all of us.
Besides mother, it was Lazarus who had borne the brunt of dad’s death. He had to grow up and grow up fast. He was compelled to become the man of the house. Mom had worked hard to raise her three children. Since dad’s death, the four of us had become even closer. I was clearly the biggest loser because with mom there were no favorites. She was the fairest of all women. With mom’s sudden death, Lazarus’ responsibilities grew. He also became the sole bread winner. Martha and I picked up odd jobs to supplement the family income.
Somewhere along the way, I lost myself. I’d rather not go into details, but I was not held in high regard by the pharisees and other religious leaders. They referred to me as “the sinner.” It was not that they had no share in the kind of person I had become, but society did not think that way. It was as if the woman’s part was to play the game and the men’s part to throw the blame. Martha and Lazarus were clearly unhappy with the turn my life had taken. They knew, though, that being the youngest, I felt it the hardest. They’d never let me feel abandoned, but it was hard to miss the regret. There were many, many dark nights.
It was on one of those dark nights, that I found myself at the house of Simon the Pharisee. There was a strange aura there that night. Simon was entertaining a man named Jesus. I had heard about him even as a child. He was a very special child growing up, the kind of child you would call an honor student; the kind who would make the dean’s list each year. He too had lost his father when he was young. These days, his reputation was beginning to erode. The religious leaders considered him a rebel. The leaders could not condemn him, however. On the one hand he questioned age old traditions and challenged the authority of the leaders. On the other hand, he was a miracle worker. Just the other day, he healed a man born blind. The leaders were incensed because he healed him on a Sabbath. They argued that a holy man would have never done that. Since some people revered him as a prophet, the religious leaders were afraid to oppose him openly.
When I approached Simon’s house that night, hearing that Jesus was there, my instinct was to flee. However, my curiosity got the better of me. I peeked in and got of glimpse of him sitting at table with the other bigwigs. It looked like he was engaged in a heated argument with some religious leaders. Simon stood aloof, content to be watching from the sidelines. Simon saw me trying to avoid the crowd but was relieved to notice my intrigue. I think he wanted to see me embroiled in the ensuing controversy. It was as if he was saying to himself, “Let’s watch the fun. This man, Jesus, if he were a prophet, he would know who and what manner of woman this is who approached him, that she is a sinner.” I did not care about Simon’s thoughts as I was overcome with an indescribable sense of awe. I could not resist his aura. I started, then paused, started again, stopped and finally rushed toward him and fell at his feet. There was no turning back now. With every eye popping out of their socket, I felt like a lamb lying motionless in front of the slaughterers. Tears flushed down my eyes and I saw them wash away the dust off his feet. I felt embarrassed. I wiped his feet with my hair, and then to make up, emptied the alabaster jar of ointment upon them. If I expected him to shrug me off his feet, it did not happen. Instead, he came to my rescue. Defying every tradition, every prejudice, every social practice, he whisked me away from them. He said to me that my sins were all forgiven because I had dared to love much. I am not sure I understood him ,but I felt forgiven and free. I felt again like that little girl whose daddy would be proud of her.
I remember him walking me to my house that night along with some of his followers. Lazarus and Martha were amazed when I narrated the events of the evening. They had already heard about Jesus. The healing of the man born blind and the opposition of the religious leaders were making headline news. We invited him to come in and have something to eat. He had barely eaten at Simon’s house. From that night on, our family became friends with him. Whenever he passed by Bethany, he would spend the night at our place. He soon became our teacher and guide. I would often sit at his feet and hear him speak. Sometimes Martha would get irritated because I would not help her serve. One time he told her that I had chosen the better portion. You should have her face!
Trauma returned to haunt us again a few years later. Lazarus suddenly became very ill. It reminded me of the time we had lost our mother. We did not want happened to mother to happen again. We would be lost without our brother. So we sent word to Jesus saying, “Master, the one you love is ill,” but we did not hear from him. Meanwhile, Lazarus got even worse. The physician saw him and said that there was nothing more he could do. If only Jesus would come. If he could heal a man born blind, he surely could heal my brother. Two days passed since we sent word to him. Its not like him to not come since he really loved Lazarus. I began to get worried about him. We had heard that in Judea some of his opponents had wanted to stone him. Was he in hiding?
Lazarus got increasingly worse over the next couple of days. Martha and I would take turns to keep watch over him. One day, at the end of the second watch of the night, Martha came to take her turn. I was exhausted. It did not take too long for me to fall asleep. And then it happened. A long shriek tore the quiet of the night. I jumped out of bed to find Martha besides herself. Lazarus had succumbed to the dreaded fever. Martha and I just clung to each other in fear and grief. Three times in our short life-time, death had snatched the person we loved the most. Soon the entire neighborhood had gathered at the house. There was a frantic movement of people and unceasing wailing. I remember a similar commotion when I was five. People were also beginning to talk among themselves. They were wondering why God would allow such misfortune to visit us repeatedly. I wish I knew. I wish Jesus was here. I miss him so much, especially now.
The routine was similar. They carefully wrapped him in while linen and carried him to place him in the tomb. It was incredibly hard to say goodbye. I wailed my heart out. How could life be so cruel to us? Our family was literally snatched away from us right before our eyes.
Our close friends joined Martha and I as we grieved Lazarus. They had done this when dad passed away and then mom.
It was the fourth day now and we still had not heard from Jesus. Martha and I would often look at each other and wonder if we were not thinking the same thoughts. How could he not be here when we need him most? We were also afraid that something might have happened to him. Suddenly, someone barged into the house to tell us that Jesus was coming into the village. As usual, Martha’s impetuousness got the better of her and she darted out of the house. I wanted to run as well, but I decided to stay back. I did not know how to face him. My grief was intense. Deep inside, I was also disappointed that he did not come early enough to save my brother. As I was getting used to ensuing conflict within, Martha came into the house and nudged me out. “He is asking for you, Mary!”
As soon as I saw him, I burst into tears. “Master, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” He did not say anything at first. He simply held Martha and I in a tight embrace. We could sense that he was deeply perturbed. In ways that I cannot describe, I felt an awe-filled comfort in his embrace. He asked us where Lazarus was laid. Both Martha and I invited him to visit the tomb with us.
On the way to the tomb, Martha shared the conversation she had had with him. Hoping that there was someway out of her grief, she had said to him, “Even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”
“Mary, then he said the strangest thing. He said that Lazarus will rise.”
“He said that?”
“Yes. I said to him that I know that he will rise again on the last day.” “Did he reply?”
“Yes.” He said, “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.”
“It better be true, Martha. I am tired of losing people I love and I do not want us to lose each other.”
“That wasn’t all. He then looked right into my eyes and asked, “Do you believe this? “I said something I never ever planned to say. I said, “I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
“Mary, I truly believe what I said. I truly believe that whatever he asks God, God will give him. I wanted me not to believe. You know how impulsive I am. Yet I could not get myself not to believe.”
“Sis, it was an inexplicable feeling when he held us both in his arms outside the house. It was the same feeling I had when he had rescued me at Simon’s house. There was a peace that cannot be described. It was as if eternity itself was holding us in its embrace. I too believe that he is the Son of God. I believe!”
By now we were already at the tomb. A huge stone lay across the entrance. I could not believe that my dear brother lay in there. Jesus stood there… silent. I have never seen him like this before. It looked like he was not merely grieving for Lazarus but for humanity. It is as if he was tormented at death’s destructive power. I saw tears trickle down his eyes. This was the first that I saw him weep. This time, though, I saw more than a man. At this precise moment he was not merely human. He was also divine. His posture, his demeanor, his voice, his prayer… This was a different Jesus. With an authority that is not of this earth, he said, “Take the stone away.” Martha intervened and said, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” This is the first I heard Martha call him “Lord.” Jesus looked at her and replied, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” It was not a rebuke, but I would not say it wasn’t. Poor Martha, her impetuosity alway lands her in trouble.
People were talking. I heard someone say, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” Jesus was undisturbed by people-talk. Calmly, yet with authority, he looked up and cried out in a loud voice, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” In a thundering voice he called out, “Lazarus, come out!” This is precisely what I was hoping he would say, yet I was afraid he had said it. There was stunned silence. It felt like the earth had stopped spinning. What was just a few moments seemed like eternity. I heard someone say that they saw a movement inside. The crowd was beginning to get hysterical. My heart could have burst out of my chest as I gasped. Then, behold! As I had seen Lazarus wrapped in linen when he was taken away, a similar figure slowly emerged out of the tomb. I could not believe my eyes. Jesus looked at me. It worked. Death was surrendering to Life. Martha and I clung on to him. He merely held on to us like friends would do. The crowd’s uncertainty changed into wonder and praise. No one had seen anything like this. They began to crowd Jesus as if to declare him the messiah. Jesus deflected the attention away from himself and asked that Lazarus be untied and be set free. The was typical of Jesus. He always thought about the other person.
What awaited us was pure joy. There he was, my brother, just as he was before he fell ill. We asked him if he was alright. He said that it all felt like a dream.
It was hard to get the crowds to leave the house. Ironically, a holy fear had struck the people and they left us alone.Later Martha poked Lazarus in his ribs again to see if he was real. Lazarus couldn’t bear the tickle. He never did. We all broke out into laughter. We hadn’t laughed heartily in a very long time. As the laughter subsided, a sense of sacred awe gripped us. There was only one thing left to do. We fell at his feet and whispered, “We have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
I have been at his feet numerous times. This time it was different. He was not only my friend. He was my God.
- Fr. Satish Joseph