What is Lazarus Saturday?

What is Lazarus Saturday?
Brother Lawrence Damien Cos

Dear family

In about a week we will be celebrating Holy Week and for most of us here in the West that will begin on Palm Sunday marking the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. However within the Orthodox Churches Holy Week starts a day earlier with the celebration of Lazarus Saturday on the day before Palm Sunday. It is the day when the Church honors the raising from the dead of Lazarus by Jesus. Lazarus had already been lying in the tomb for four days and under normal circumstances his body would have already have begun to decay and smell. Yet Jesus overrules that fact and calls Lazarus forth from the grave into life. Thus as we come to the end of the 40 days of Great Lent and the 40 days of fasting and penitence we come to a time of joy and happiness both on Lazarus Saturday as well as Palm Sunday. Thus the church in triumph and joy bears witness to the power of Christ over death and exalts Him as King before entering the most solemn week of the year, Its that week that will lead the faithful in remembrance of Christ’s suffering and death at Calvary and concludes with the great and glorious Feast of Pascha and the resurrection of Christ from the grave.

Biblical Story

The story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead by Jesus Christ is found in the Gospel of John 11:1-45. Lazarus becomes ill, and his sisters, Mary and Martha send a message to Jesus stating, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” In response to the message, Jesus says, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (vv. 1-4).

Jesus did not immediately go to Bethany, the town where Lazarus lived with his sisters. Instead He remained in the place where He was staying for two more days. After this time, He told his disciples that they were returning to Judea. The disciples immediately expressed their concern, stating that the Jews there had recently tried to stone Him (John 10:31). Jesus replied to His disciples, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them” (vv. 5-10).
After He said this, Jesus told his disciples that Lazarus had fallen asleep and that He was going there to wake him. The disciples wondered why He would go to wake Lazarus, since it was good for him to sleep if he was ill. Jesus, however, was referring to the death of Lazarus, and thus told the disciples directly that Lazarus was dead (vv. 11-14).

When Jesus arrived at Bethany, Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Since Bethany was near Jerusalem, many of the Jews had come to console Mary and Martha. When Martha heard that Jesus was approaching she went to meet Him and said to Him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of Him.” Jesus told her that her brother will rise again. Martha said that she knew he would rise again in the resurrection on the last day. Jesus replied, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus asked Martha if she believed this. She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (vv. 17-27).

Martha returned to tell Mary that Jesus had come and was asking for her. Mary went to meet Him, and she was followed by those who were consoling her. The mourners followed her thinking that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When she came to Jesus, she fell at His feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus saw her weeping and those who were with her, and He was deeply moved. He asked to be taken to the tomb of Lazarus. As Jesus wept for Lazarus the Jews said, “See how He loved him.” Others wondered that if Jesus could open the eyes of the blind, He certainly could have kept Lazarus from dying (vv. 28-37).

Jesus came to the tomb and asked that the stone that covered the door be taken away. Martha remarked that Lazarus had now been in the tomb for four days and that there would be a stench. Jesus replied, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” The stone was taken away, and Jesus looked toward heaven and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When He had said this, He called out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus walked out of the tomb, bound with the strips of burial cloth, and Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go” (vv. 38-44).

As a result of this miracle, many of the Jews that were present believed in Jesus. Others went and told the Pharisees what Jesus had done. In response the Pharisees and chief priests met and considered how they might arrest Him and put Him to death (v. 45ff).

This miracle is performed by Christ as a reassurance to His disciples before the coming Passion: they are to understand that, though He suffers and dies, yet He is Lord and Victor over death. The resurrection of Lazarus is a prophecy in the form of an action. It foreshadows Christ’s own Resurrection eight days later, and at the same time it anticipates the resurrection of all the righteous on the Last Day: Lazarus is “the saving first-fruits of the regeneration of the world.”

As the liturgical texts emphasize, the miracle at Bethany reveals the two natures of Christ the God-man. Christ asks where Lazarus is laid and weeps for him, and so He shows the fullness of His manhood, involving as it does human ignorance and genuine grief for a beloved friend. Then, disclosing the fullness of His divine power, Christ raises Lazarus from the dead, even though his corpse has already begun to decompose and stink. This double fullness of the Lord’s divinity and His humanity is to be kept in view throughout Holy Week, and above all on Good Friday. On the Cross we see a genuine human agony, both physical and mental, but we see more than this: we see not only suffering man but suffering God.

How Does This Story Apply to Us?

This seems a strange way to begin Holy Week a time which can become a time of suffering, loss of hope as we go through the betrayal, condemnation, crucifixion and burial. It can seem like all is lost and there is no hope. That I believe is why we need to be reminded of Lazarus and his rising from the dead.

I see three things happening here. First I believe it is a prophecy addressed to his disciples that just as Lazarus was raised from the dead so would Jesus himself die and be raised again. Therefore they could have hope that all would turn out well in the end.

Secondly for us it is a reminder that as we go through the events of Holy Week that it’s ok. Things may look bleak at the moment and look as if death and evil have triumphed. However that is nothing more than façade. If we remember the story of Lazarus and keep its message before us then we know that there is a resurrection coming. It may be a time of betrayal, being falsely accused and condemned. Yes it may be Good Friday but that’s alright as Easter and the Resurrection are just around the corner. That is I believe the message of Lazarus Saturday that we can take from this whether Orthodox or Catholic or even Protestant.

Thirdly it also reminds us all that we wil alll one day die. However as in the case of Lazarus and Christ death is not the end but we too will rise again and live.

Pray this has been a blessing to you and any comments or thoughts welcomed

Brother Lawrence Damien Cos

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