Spirit groans, so that flesh would come to life. Life groans, so that death would be put to flight. God groans, so that humanity would rise.[1. Peter Crysologus, Sermon 65.1]
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”[2. 1 Corinthians 15:55 TNIV]
In the famous courtroom scene from one of my favorite movies, A Man for All Seasons, St. Thomas More is being tried for his refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy which codified King Henry VIII’s position as Supreme Head of the Church of England. As the trial progresses, Thomas Cromwell reminds More of the penalty for treason: death.
(More:) “Death… comes for us all, my lords. Even for kings he comes.”
(Magistrate:) “The death of kings is not in question, Sir Thomas.”
(More:) “Nor mine, I trust, until I’m proven guilty.”
(Duke of Norfolk:) “Your life lies in your own hands, Thomas, as it always has!”
(More:) “Is that so, my lord? Then I’ll keep a good grip on it.”[3. A Man For All Seasons, 1966, IMDB]
Death comes for us all. This one inescapable reality is the great equalizer of humankind- whether you are great or small, rich or poor, powerful or weak, the one enemy that cannot be overcome is the final one that so patiently waits to claim its rightful due. The circumstances are, in the final analysis, rather accidental to the fact itself, and whether on the battlefield or in the safety of sleep we will all have that final and fateful meeting.
In this respect, rationality is both a blessing and a cruse. While we enjoy the great gift of consciously experiencing the world beyond mere sensation, it comes with a price, and we can see, however far off we purport it to be, the inevitability of it all. Such a grim perspective has unsurprisingly provided fertile ground for the human imagination throughout history, ranging the gambit from inexpressible hope to incalculable despair.
In the nascent period of Christianity, followers of Jesus found themselves estranged from surrounding societies on a peculiar fulcrum- the resurrection. It wasn’t that they believed in some kind of quasi-existence after death- that was kind of old hat for many cultures. Rather, their faith seemed to be based upon what was a rather scandalous assertion- there would be a resurrection, and this resurrection wasn’t simply as a shade wandering in Hades, but was a resurrection (oh, the unspeakable absurdity of it all) of the body.
The Greco-Roman world believed death to be the end. Those still beholden to the pagan religions might have imagined a bleak and shadowy existence in the underworld, while the more philosophically minded (especially of the Stoic or Epicurean variety) might perceive, at worst, death as the cessation of sensation- no great evil- or at best the escape of the soul from the body. At the most, death was something you couldn’t escape and couldn’t reverse. Thus, the best one could hope for was a good burial. (Such an outlook prompted the establishment of guilds and trade societies whose intent, among other pursuits, was to ensure its members a decent burial, a small memorial for the slaves of mortality.) If you were truly noble or had the right political or cultic connections, you might find blessedness beyond, but who knows. As a common tombstone epitaph read: “I was not, I am not, I care not.” Agnosticism was a proper approach to what lay beyond death’s intraversable ocean, but resurrection was not. As N.T. Wright reminds us:
All, however, were agreed: There was no resurrection. Death could not be reversed. Homer said it; Aeschylus and Sophocles seconded it. “What’s it like down there?” asks a man of his departed friend, in a third-century B.C.E. epigram. “Very dark,” comes the reply. “Any way back up?” “It’s a lie!”
In Greek thought, the living could establish contact with the dead through various forms of necromancy; they might even receive ghostly visitations. But neither experience amounts to what pagan writers themselves referred to as “resurrection,” or the return to life, which they all denied. Thus, Christianity was born into a world where one of its central tenets, resurrection, was universally recognized as false.[4. N.T. Wright, The Resurrection Of Resurrection, Bible Review, August 2000]
Thus, Christians found themselves proclaiming a message that was deemed ridiculous at best, and dangerous at worst. Christians in the first few centuries of the common era were often accused of not participating fully in society, (most often this accusation revolved around one’s public duty to participate in the imperial worship cultus) because they were hoping for something more in the future life- the pagan rulers were often incensed at the willingness with which many Christians suffered torments and death rather than engage in the public worship of the emperors. We see a glimpse of this in Christianity’s earliest days in St. Paul’s attempt to preach at the Aeropagus. Acts 17 tells the story:
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.”[5. Acts 17:29-32 TNIV]
Paul’s words up until the moment of mentioning the resurrection were sentiments that any one of Paul’s listeners could agree with. After all, the more philosophically minded no doubt had little difficulty with him stating that the images were not indicative of the divine being- they themselves probably did not think as much. Even the idea of a final judgement could be palatable. But the resurrection of the dead- that was going too far. The Acts account focuses on this facet: it is the idea of resurrection of the dead that causes them to sneer.
Here, in Christianity’s earliest encounters with the pagan world, it is readily apparent that the resurrection would become the hinge-point upon which this new way of approaching reality would rise or fall. For Christians, it was the lens through which life and faith would be seen- now that death had been overcome, there was nothing more to fear from what the world could bring against it. Even the social and political landscape would never be the same. This perspective would have a powerful ripple effect that eventually brought about a change in the world- as N.T. Wright says:
Resurrection hope (as one would expect from its Jewish roots) turned those who believed it into a counter-empire, an alternative society that knew the worst that tyrants could do and knew that the true God had the answer.[6. N.T. Wright, The Resurrection Of Resurrection, Bible Review, August 2000]
This brings us to the icon of the raising of Lazarus. This story from John’s Gospel was one of the images that fired the Christian imagination, both theologically and artistically, from its earliest days. The raising of Lazarus is the seventh of the ‘signs’ in John’s Gospel, and the fact that it was the seventh was not accounted as a mere literary accident, but was understood to be imbued with intense significance. The idea behind this was that this final sign was a prefiguring of the greatest sign, the resurrection of Christ himself.
In the Roman catacombs, at least 40 images depicting this event have been uncovered.[7. The Meaning of Icons, Leonide Ouspensky/Vladimir Lossky p. 175] Generally these depictions, unlike their iconic descendants, pictured only Christ and Lazarus. The simplicity of these depictions is an aspect of this image being an ‘image sign,’ a sign or image that implies more than it actually shows.[8. Festival Icons for the Christian Year, John Baggley p. 90] As already alluded to, the implication is that the raising of Lazarus points to more than just this event itself- it points to Christ’s resurrection, which is a sign itself of the resurrection of the body.
As the centuries progressed, and as the theological implications of Christ’s divinity-in-humanity became further articulated, so the depiction of the raising of Lazarus gained more aesthetic and theological detail. The interesting thing about this particular icon is found in its literal-ness, for almost every aspect of the narrative as described in the Gospel is artistically depicted. Yet present within the literal imagery is a theological richness that, far from being hidden within the very literal-ness, is in fact nearly implicit.
We begin with the lower right corner, where the sisters of Lazarus- Mary and Martha- are laying prostrate at Jesus’ feet. The range of emotions from their desperate grief and loss to perhaps a profound disappointment at Jesus’ seeming inability or (perhaps worse) unwillingness to heal Lazarus before his death are condensed into this scene. We are reminded of their words to Jesus when he arrives, and feel the pain in their voices- “If only you had been here, our brother would not have died.” Yet despite this despair, we find a shocking posture on their part- they are on their knees before their Lord. The depth of their sorrow is exceeded by the depth of their trust, and in this trust is the unfathomable mystery of faith expressed. We hear a distant echo of Job’s exclamation of faith: “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” St. Augustine describes their faith as such:
She does not say to him, “Bring my brother to life again.” For how could she know that it would be good for him to come to life again? She says, I know you can do so, if you want to, but what you will do is for your judgment, not for my presumption, to determine.[9. St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 49.13]
Immediately above them is a man struggling to remove the stone from the mouth of the tomb. The tomb, and the darkness behind it, are representative of ignorance, death and sin. It is fascinating that the stone is only removed at the command of Jesus: “Take away the stone.” Despite the sorrows and pains that we bear, and all the desires we have to escape from our bondage to sin, the stone that hides us in the shadow of death is immovable- until the voice of God breaks into the world and proclaims our freedom. Our best efforts are the struggling of a dead man locked in a tomb until God opens the door and brings us out. One can sense an allusion to Jesus’ words that “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.”[10. John 6:44 TNIV]
We move to Lazarus and the crowd behind him. Both are positioned in front of the darkness of the cave, again indicative of the darkness and enslavement of sin. One of those nearest Lazarus holds his nose to shield himself from the stench of death and decay, a fitting metaphor for many experiences in the darkness of the world. Yet something new is occurring here, something that goes against the darkness- the dead are now alive. Our eye is turned to Lazarus, still bound in his grave clothes. The point is obvious- his standing here is not his own doing, but is the work of Jesus, is caused by the power of God. As the stone of the tomb could not be removed but for the command of God, so the dead can not come forth unless God calls them forth. The Church Fathers saw this event as an allegory of God calling the sinner back to repentance, out of darkness and into light, from the slavery of death to the liberty of life. St. Augustine says:
What does it mean? When you despise [Christ], you lie dead…when you confess, you come forth. For what is to come forth, but to come out, as it were, from your hiding place and show yourself? But you cannot make this confession unless God moves you to do it, by crying out with a loud voice, that is, calling you with abundant grace.[11. St. Augustine, Tractates on the Gospel of John 49.24]
Christ’s command is to ‘unbind him and let him go.’ In the icon this is depicted in the man nearest him holding a strand of the grave clothes, preparing to unbind him. Again, the implication seen by the early church is that Christ is calling those who are bound in sin to be unbound and freed. This icon portrays this idea in an interesting nuance- the loosing is performed not by Christ himself, but by those whom he commands. The early church interpreted this command as pertaining to the church, hearkening back to Jesus’ bestowing upon the apostles the authority to bind and loose. St. Augustine thus interprets this event:
So someone says, “What’s the use of the church, if you can confess,and be brought back to life by the voice of the Lord and come out immediately?” “What use is the church to you as you confess- the church to whom the Lord said, ‘What you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven?” Look at Lazarus’ case. he came out, all tied up. He was already alive, by confessing, but he was not yet walking around freely, being still entangled with the bandages. So what does the church do, told as it has been, “Whatever you loose shall be loosed?” The church does what the Lord went on at once to tell the disciples, of course: “Unbind him and let him go.”[12. St. Augustine, Sermon 67.3]
As in most icons, our gaze is ultimately meant to fixate upon Christ. The observer will notice that every gaze is fixed upon him, for although this icon is about the raising of Lazarus, it is ultimately about Christ. He holds in his hand a scroll, representative of his wisdom, of him as the Logos; thus, he is the artificer of all creation, the one who set the universe aflame with light and filled the world with life. In this moment is a recapitulation of creation, in that the same Author of life sets about to recreate that which fell into decay and corruption. Death will not be the final word- the immovable stone of the tomb that has bound our race will not stay in place forever, for the Maker of us has become one of us.
The famous scene of Jesus’ weeping at his friend’s death is not explicitly depicted here; rather, it is implicit, wrapped up in the fact that we do not find an ethereal being descending from the heavens, aloof from the stench of death. Instead, we find a very human man who yet is the fullness of divinity in the thick of it- God has truly shared our lot and borne our griefs. His outstretched hand beckons to not just any man with some generic love or concern for an abstract humanity, but is the gesture of a friend reaching for a friend. God’s love is not abstract, but is as real as the flesh that covers our hands, as real as the odors that fill our nostrils, as real as the breath that heaves in and out of our lungs. As such, this outstretched hand is in itself a sign pointing to what is to come, in which God will demonstrate the depths of his love in the most concrete way imaginable, as this hand will soon be stretched upon a cross. This resurrection is thus merely a foreshadowing of the resurrection of Christ.
In this icon we see a microcosm of the Christian life, as the relationship between Christ and Lazarus becomes a figure of the relationship between Christians in the Church and with Christ.
Christ is shown not alone, but with his disciples, the nucleus of the Christian Church; there is also the crowd that has gathered at the tomb, which includes those who will welcome him as well as those who will reject him. One man prepares to loose the grave clothes of Lazarus, another removes the stone, and the sisters pour out their hearts to the Lord in grief and faith, and intercede for their dead brother…All these reflect the Christian’s situation. Through Baptism we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ, alive in communion with his Church, where we are supported by the prayers of others and share with them in all the privileges and burdens of the Christian life in the world. As with Lazarus and his sisters, in all the complexities of life the essential relationship is that established with us by Christ himself who is the Life-Giver, and calls us out of darkness into the light of his presence. [13. Festival Icons for the Christian Year, John Baggley p. 92]
For me, this icon has taken on new-found meaning over the last couple of weeks. A week ago, my grandfather passed away, which has been a time of sorrow for my family. As I have meditated on this icon and thought of all the memories of my grandfather over the years, I am struck by how powerful the concept of resurrection is and how it lends a different perspective to the passing of loved ones. In the early church, ‘falling asleep’ was often employed as a euphemism for death, for death’s power had forever been broken. Thus, the parting of believers was not an occasion for mourning ‘as those who have no hope’ but was rather a cause for rejoicing. In fact, from the earliest times Christians would celebrate the date of passing as that believer’s true ‘birthday.’
Over the last week I have been remembering my grandfather, and how more than any other person I have ever met or known he has exemplified the hope and faith expressed by Mary and Martha as depicted in this icon. In him I have known what can happen when God’s love really gets a hold of someone. During our final visit together a few weeks ago, he expressed all the things that God had done for him. One thing that stuck out to me that I will never forget is when he told me how God had filled his heart with love- he no longer had the grudges or regrets, none of the hard feelings towards anyone, but that God had transformed all his thoughts, feelings and intentions towards others into that of love. I was pretty blown away by that, for I cannot imagine that he ever had a grudge against anyone in his life, and if he did it was probably minute compared to anything I have ever experienced. Nevertheless, God had turned all the ugliness that exists in all of our hearts and over the course of his life had made something beautiful out of it. Even as he was dying, it was as if he was becoming all the more alive. I was reminded of St. Paul’s words: Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.[14. 2 Corinthians 4:16 TNIV]
In my grandfather it was unmistakable to see the truth of John’s words that ‘love comes from God.‘ Like Lazarus, he had been called from death to life, and he eagerly obeyed. I cannot imagine myself being as full of love as he was, and if I could be half as loving as him I would quickly be made a saint. In him I saw the faith and trust of Mary and Martha, the obedience of Lazarus, and finally the love of Christ. Although there is grief, there is yet hope, for this sign of the resurrection is the promise of life, as Jesus himself said:
I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.[15. John 11:25 TNIV]
As I conclude, I am brought back to A Man for All Seasons. More has been sentenced to death, and stands before the executioner. Yet he does not shrink from death, but embraces it with hope, for love has also filled his heart:
(More:) I am commanded by the King to be brief, and since I am the King’s obedient subject, brief I will be. I die his Majesty’s good servant but God’s first.
(to the executioner)
(More:) I forgive you right readily.
(he gives him a coin)
(More:) Be not afraid of your office; you send me to God.
(Archbishop Cranmer:) You’re very sure of that, Sir Thomas?
(More:) He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.[16. A Man For All Seasons, 1966, IMDB]
As I remember my grandfather, these same words seem very apropos, for he was a man who was “so blithe to go to him.” In the midst of our sorrow we can greet the day with a steadfast hope, for the sting of death has been removed, its power shattered forever. The One who made us and who holds the universe in his hands all the more holds us in his hands, and has not forgotten us. As the holidays approach, we remember how God came to us, to bring us to him. It is thus with hope that I meditate upon this icon and remember my grandfather, as well as all those whom I love who have passed away, full of the confidence that comes from faith that Jesus truly is the resurrection and life, and those who believe in him will never die.
I am the voice of life that wakens the dead. I am the good odor that takes away the foul odor. I am the voice of joy that takes away sorrow and grief… I am the comfort of those who are in grief. Those who belong to me are given joy by me. I am the joy of the whole world. I gladden all my friends and rejoice with them. [17. St. Athanasius, Homily on the Resurrection of Lazarus]