Holy Week out of order: Lazarus, come forth!

by Mark Safstrom

Already at the beginning of Lent this year the storm cloud of an epidemic was looming on the horizon. As in past years, ashes were imposed on my forehead in Ascension Chapel at Augustana, there was time for one Friday fish fry with friends at the Irish American Heritage Center in Chicago, but then the regular rhythms of preparing for Easter came to an abrupt halt. Everything was rebooted in an alternate reality. My college went online, church went online, we “sheltered in place,” and then found creative ways to be physically, but not socially, distant.

This year there will not be the kind of brass-and-organ Holy Week that I love. And that’s okay. Maybe it’s more authentic to the biblical witness of the gospels for this season too. Even if we could have church together physically, a mood of Palm Sunday pomp would be inappropriate in the midst of the exhaustion and despair that so many are feeling, health care professionals especially. Rather than a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Lazarus story just before it may offer us a more accessible entry point into Holy Week in this year of pandemic.

John’s gospel departs from the other three synoptics in a number of ways. One striking difference is the relocation of the story of Jesus chasing the money changers out of the Temple. In John this occurs at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, rather than just prior to the passion narrative. Some scholars suggest this narrative choice may have been made in part to allow the Lazarus story to become the focal point instead. The sickness, death, and resurrection of Lazarus, placed directly before the passion narrative, allows it to be an interpretive lens on the events that follow.

Lazarus is sick, his sisters report. Tell Jesus to hurry. It’s urgent. Lazarus is dying. Inexplicably, Jesus takes too long to arrive. Lazarus dies and is buried. Even Jesus is overcome by finding Lazarus dead. He weeps. The Passover festival is coming, but no one has time to think about that this year.

It is Martha who speaks the word of hope here: “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

“Your brother will rise again,” responds, Jesus. The humanly impossible will happen.

Wait, what? That’s absurd.

Søren Kierkegaard identified bodily resurrection as belonging to the “absurd,” explaining that faith was an ongoing and essential struggle with the belief that the humanly impossible can actually happen in this life, in this body. For Kierkegaard this is what Abraham was able to witness to, making him worthy of the title “the father of faith.” Abraham believed that even if Isaac was sacrificed, he would get him back, in this life. Jesus is claiming the same kind of miracle for Lazarus.

The Johannine presentation of Easter upends the order of events. We conventionally hear preached that Jesus died to save us, to raise us from the dead, in that order. The resurrection of the body – of our bodies – comes afterward, at the end, the eschaton. Even Martha says that here: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” But here the chronology is out of order. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, and then he himself dies and is raised. For Lazarus, the absurd possibility of the resurrection of the body is not abstracted or placed at a later date. It’s apparently so urgent, that it happens out of order. It happens now. “Lazarus, come forth,” cries Jesus, and Lazarus emerges from his tomb, restored to life and still wrapped in the smelly grave clothes of his formerly dead body.

Rather than the Hallelujah Chorus, another song from Handel’s Messiah would fit this scene better, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” The lyrics are retrieved from the ashes and mourning of Job (19:25-26):

“And though worms destroy this body
Yet in my flesh shall I see God.”

The rendition of this song by the soprano, Jenny Lind, helped it become a favorite in Victorian England and America. As her daughter recounted later, whenever Lind sang this song, she placed extra emphasis on the word “know.” I KNOW that my Redeemer liveth. This is a song of beautifully defiant faith, not ignorant of biological reality, but pointing beyond it.

We can start this Easter week with Lazarus’s friends as they mourn, follow their bewilderment and joy at his resurrection, and also their anxiety over the socio-political upheaval that follows. The absurd and defiant faith of Martha, in the face of the death of her brother, is a bold affirmation of the resurrection and life that Easter grants to us – “on the last day” and right now.

Guds frid – God’s peace.

Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020