Most feast days of the saints celebrate the day the saint died, went to heaven, and stayed put. Lazarus Saturday celebrates the opposite. It is the day Our Lord summoned his friend back to this life, despite four days and several spools of moldering mummy wrap. In the Eastern Rite, this mind blowing event is always commemorated on the day before Palm Sunday, which this year was April 13.
Though Lazarus has his own regular brand feast day in October on the Eastern calendar, this is the big one. The resurrection of Lazarus is wrapped up in the resurrection of Jesus. Our Lord shows his followers that he has power over death, so that they will believe in his power over his own death. It is a foretaste of Easter.
Lazarus became the saving first-fruits of the world’s regeneration.
All things are possible for Thee, O Lord and King of all. (Lazarus Saturday, triodion by Emperor Leo)
The raising of Lazarus also shows a key Catholic doctrine, that God is glorified in his saints. Our Lord himself says it:
“This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4)
The Divine Liturgy affirms it in this weekday hymn, often sung on a saint’s feast day:
Son of God, wonderful in the saints, save us who sing to you: Alleluia.
Could the Catholic doctrine of the role of the saints be any clearer? It is the Son of God who alone saves and it is the saints who give him glory. The saints are not – as some misinformed critics believe – in competition with Our Lord. They point to him, as the resurrection of Lazarus points to Our Lord.
It is also important to point out who Lazarus was to Our Lord. He was one of Jesus’ closest friends. Jesus often stayed with him and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, when he was passing through Bethany. Consider what this meant to Jesus, who had no home of his own.
“Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” (Matthew 8:20)
That was the way Our Lord wanted it. He technically owned every place in the universe, right? But he wanted to go where he was welcome, to stay where people made room for him. That is how he is to this day. He wants us to invite him to stay with us, and to serve him and to listen to him, as Lazarus and his sisters did. Thus, even before the spectacular raising of Lazarus, that trio of saints gave glory to Jesus. And so can we.
When Mary and Martha sent for Jesus with the urgent message that Lazarus was gravely ill, they hoped — and perhaps expected — him to come without delay and save the day. Instead, he delayed for two days. He downright dithered. He had better plans. He was, as C.S. Lewis would say, “not a tame lion,” using his great power and strength in a way that man can harness, control, or predict.
Lazarus died and was buried and finally Our Lord came. Too late, it seemed. To onlookers, Our Lord seemed to confirm it when he wept.
Why did he do that, knowing he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead? Because death was never part of God’s plan for humanity. Death is the sundering of body and soul. The body, which is sacred because God created it good, is then subjected to rot. Whose terrible idea was this?
Not God’s. Which is why he came down to save us from it — not in the way we would design which would be to opt out of death and thus trap ourselves in this sorry world forever, but to give us eternal life with him.
He would not be the king people thought they needed, whom they would hail on Palm Sunday, a worker of wonders limited to the goods of this earthly world. His redemption would not avoid death; it would pass through death and conquer it.
“Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43)
Many believed in Our Lord on account of Lazarus, just as he intended. But the hearts of his enemies only hardened, just as he had foretold.
“If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:31)
The moment Jesus gave life to Lazarus was the moment that the chief priests and Pharisees decided to kill Jesus. Lazarus, a walking contradiction to them, was next on their hit list. Duh.
Did you ever wonder how they could be so stupid? Here is their answer:
“If we leave him alone, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation.” (John 11:48)
They loved and served this world.
“No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.” (Matthew 6:24)
Did you ever wonder what became of St. Lazarus? How did he live out the his added days before finally dying, going to heaven, and staying put?
Popular legend dating to the 13th century says that Lazarus and his sisters were set adrift by their fellow Jews and later washed up on the shores of France. However, according to New Advent, the Catholic Encyclopedia, this is a mix-up. Greek accounts are earlier and as far as that goes, more reliable. They say that Lazarus escaped to Cyprus. Later his relics were translated to Constantinople. This, the Eastern Church commemorates in October, on St. Lazarus’s regular brand feast day.
Two or more feast days for the same saint is not unusual on the Eastern calendar. The saints glorify God in so many ways, the attitude seems to be let’s celebrate them all! I couldn’t agree more.
The Lord is wonderful in his saints. Alleluia! Christ is risen!