Jesus’ trip to Bethany is a journey into the belly of death so that he might release death’s captive and bring him into life. This captive is Lazarus, who has fallen ill (John 11:3). Jesus knows that he will not recover from this illness. “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep,” he says to his disciples, “but I go to awaken him” (11:11). Lazarus will not awake from this sleep without Christ’s intervention, for this sleep is the sleep of death (11:14). However, Jesus assures his disciples, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (11:4). Though the illness has, in fact, brought about death, death is not where the illness ends. It leads not to death but through death to glory, the glory of the Son of God.
Jesus knows he’s walking into death, not only Lazarus’ death but his own. Bethany is only fifteen stadia (roughly two miles) from Jerusalem (11:18). Last time he was in Jerusalem, some of the Jews attempted to stone him (10:31). The disciples remember this well: “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” (11:8). Jesus’ answer is quite cryptic: “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him” (11:9-10). Such a profound statement resists summary or “explanation,” but Jesus seems to be drawing attention to the fact that he himself does not walk in darkness. Though he is entering into Lazarus’ death, which is his own death as well, he is not in danger of stumbling. As the light of the world (8:12), Jesus walks into darkness and death, not in ignorance but in love. He journeys because “he whom [he] love[s] is ill” (11:3).
When Lazarus’ illness was introduced at the beginning of chapter 11, his sisters, Mary and Martha, were described along with him (11:1). “It was Mary,” we are told, “who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill” (11:2). The inclusion of this detail seems not so strange, until we realize that this event has not yet been narrated: the story occurs in chapter 12. Why would the Gospel include a reference to a story that has not yet happened? These are the questions to ask when reading Scripture, for God does not waste his breath (that is, his Spirit) when he speaks through the prophets and apostles. No detail is meaningless.
The fact that Mary anointed the feet of Jesus was to the dismay of Judas, who claimed that such a valuable perfume could be sold and given to the poor, though secretly his own motives were to sell it and keep the money for himself (12:5-6). Jesus corrects Judas and claims that by this act Mary was preparing him for his burial (12:7). This is an act of worship, and Jesus was worthy of it. It was a preparation for death.
The reason we are told of this event in the context of reporting Lazarus’ illness is to demonstrate that Lazarus dies in Christ. This is why Jesus’ death and Lazarus’ death are so intimately connected. Lazarus’ death has participated in Jesus’ own death, sharing in its suffering, and therefore sharing in its glory. Though Jesus has not died yet, the Gospel directs our attention to his coming death, for Jesus, like the breathless Lazarus, has been prepared for burial. The disciples’ fear that he will die if he travels into Bethany turns out to be true, not only according to the flesh (for he will indeed be killed soon) but according to the spirit. Lazarus’ illness does not end in death because his death shares in the death of the Son of God. Lazarus, after all, was dead for “four days” (11:39), since he was resurrected “after” the Son of God, who was raised on the third day. This is not an accident, for “when [Jesus] heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was,” before he departed (11:6). The Son of God arrives only at the “fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4).
Dying in Christ is necessary if one wishes to be raised from death. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says (11:25, emphasis added). Resurrection is not simply something he does, but it is who he is. It cannot be separated from Christ, but only occurs in and through him. The wicked will also be raised, but it will be the “resurrection of judgment,” which merely apes the true “resurrection of life,” by means of which believers participate in the resurrected life of Christ (5:29). Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?” (11:26). She replies, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (11:27). Jesus has already come into the world but he will ultimately make himself fully present to creation in and through his death and resurrection. When he comes again at the end, there will be no more death and suffering, and his presence will be unmediated.
Jesus does not articulate the same theological assurance to Mary as he did to Martha. Martha needed to confess her faith. Mary needed to weep. And so, “Jesus wept” (11:35). He looks at Lazarus’ tomb and cries with Mary who has fallen at his feet, another interesting allusion to her later anointing of Christ (11:32). The tone of the moment is one of sorrow. This is a funeral. Christ’s first miracle was at a wedding (chapter 2), and now his last is at a funeral. The task of the Church, his Body, is to officiate both. Life and death, both realities of this world, are caught up within the larger cosmic recapitulation initiated by Jesus. There will be joy and sorrow, laughter and weeping, and Christ gives meaning and substance to it all.
Jesus tells them to take away the stone to Lazarus’ tomb (11:39). Martha expresses dismay, despite her confession of faith. Jesus reminds her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (11:40). Again, we are reminded of glory. Jesus had said that Lazarus’ sickness would lead not to death but to glory so that the Son of God might be glorified through it. What does it mean to see the glory of God?
Next, Christ prays to the Father eucharistically, that is, with thanksgiving: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me” (11:41). After this prayer, he cries out, “Lazarus, come out” (11:43). Then Lazarus exits the tomb, “his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth” (11:44). Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go” (11:44). It is through this that those around have seen the glory of God. But what is the glory of God? Is it his power to raise the dead? Surely, that is true. But to know that fact is not to see it. What is it to behold the glory of the Son of God?
To see the risen Lazarus is to see the glory of God, for the glory of God is Lazarus.
The Son of God became the Son of Man to make sons of men, creatures made of dust, to be sons of God, to shine with the radiance and splendor of God himself. As Jesus’ flesh reflects the glorious light of his divine essence, transfigured before the saints, they too shine like the sun as they are transformed into his image. Lazarus sees the glory of God, which is Jesus Christ, and becomes the glory of God. “The glory of God,” as St. Irenaeus says, “is a living human being.” Glory is not a zero-sum game. God shares his glory with humanity, first with the human nature assumed by the Son of God, and by this is glorified.
All of this is reflected in the icon which I have placed above this post. Jesus walks toward Lazarus and beckons him into life. Mary and Martha weep at Jesus’ feet, while Mary anoints Christ for burial: Lazarus’ death shares in Christ’s own death. Lazarus, his face unbound, sees Jesus’ face and reflects the glory of God, shining like his Resurrection and Life who stands before him. He even looks like Jesus. The disciples stand nearby as they are instructed by the Lord, and many of the Jews stand at a distance. Some look to Lazarus and believe, others look away and refuse to see (11:45-46). One even covers his nose because of the smell, and therefore, fails to see the glory.
As John 11 concludes, some of the Jews go to the chief priests and Pharisees to report Jesus’ misbehavior (11:46). A council is held, and it is decided that Jesus must die.