Martha and Mary send word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus is ill, but Jesus tarries and when he arrives Lazarus is dead. Martha comes to Jesus first.
“Martha said to Jesus, ‘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 said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.'” (John 11:21-24)
Martha is aware of the resurrection of the dead, that the reading from Ezekiel 37 describes. But now her brother is in the tomb because Jesus was not there to save him. Mary also comes to Jesus and repeats her sisters words weeping. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32)
Martha and Mary say the same thing to Jesus – Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died – but he responds to both of them differently. To Martha, he said “I am the resurrection and the life.”(John 11:25) With Mary, he weeps and goes to the tomb. Seeing the crowd that is mourning Lazarus’ death Jesus is disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. (John 11:33)
Jesus believes in the resurrection of the dead; he is the resurrection and the life. But this is not to say that Jesus simply transcends death and is unaffected by it. He doesn’t provide empty sentiments that are meant to reduce the pain. Though he does say to Martha that her brother will rise again, this message of hope is not intended to minimize the depth of her loss. He groans and weeps with all those who mourn. He goes to the tomb and he confronts death directly.
Among the mourning multitude Jesus looks upward and calls out to his Father knowing that he will be heard. (John 11:41) Then he cries out with a loud voice, “LAZARUS, COME OUT!” (John 11:43) And the dead man came out! This is a strange and absurd story. The particularity of Lazarus’ resurrection is a bit bothersome, as is the raising of Jairus’ daughter in the Synoptic gospels. (Mark 5:21-43, Matthew 9:18-26, Luke 8:40-56) The story of Lazarus’ resurrection is almost offensive when engaged in its particularity. It is either an absurd lie or an arbitrary miracle. The stories of resurrection are few and far between, and I wonder: Why Lazarus? Why Jairus’ daughter? If Jesus had power like this why did he use it so sparingly? I can think of a few people I would like to be raised from the dead.
Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead for God’s glory (John 11:4) and that the people would believe that he was sent by God. (John 11:42) If we focus on the particularity of Lazarus’ resurrection we will miss the point. The point is that Jesus Christ is the resurrection! Lazarus being raised from the dead is an outpouring of the universal truth that Jesus had said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.”(John 11:25) He is greater than death, but this is not to say that he is unaffected by it.
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life”, but the depth of meaning in this statement is plumbed by Christ alone in his descent into death. Hans Urs von Balthasar has said, “The Redeemer showed himself therefore as the only one who, going beyond the general experience of death, was able to measure the depths of that abyss.”1 In descending to the dead Jesus is in solidarity with us all. He did not just go to Lazarus’ tomb. He also enters his own and as he plumbs the abysmal depths of death he is present in each and every tomb. No corner of the catacombs of hell are unknown to him. He has plumbed the depths of our suffering and pain; he has gone deeper then into the abysmal void then we ever could.2 Only after saying “he descended into hell” can we say, “on the third day he rose again from the dead.” (The Apostles Creed) In considering Christ descent we can begin to appreciate the depth of meaning in his statement, “I am the resurrection.”
Where once humanity called out of the depths to God, it is now God who calls to us from the depths. Jesus Christ is the apt inversion of Psalm 130:1. The Psalmist said, “Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD; LORD, hear my voice; let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.” Jesus returns the prayer of the psalmist addressing us, as he did Lazarus. Jesus knows that his Father hears him, but now he speaks to Lazarus and us all, saying,
Out of the depths have I called you,
hear my voice;
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
Jesus calls out to us from the depths in his death and he calls us out from the depths in his resurrection. He prays for us and is the answer to hour prayers because he is the resurrection and the life.
1 – Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 168
2 – ibid