St Augustine reminds us that Lazarus is raised from the dead by the one who created all things and brings new life to all mankind. St Cyril of Alexandria tells us that in mentioning the names of Martha and Mary, the Evangelist is showing us why the Lord loved them for their piety and devotion to Him. He mentions the tale of Mary and the ointment to show that she had such a thirst for Him thay she wiped His feet with her hair seeking to fasten to herself the spiritual blessing that comes from the Holy flesh. She often sits close to Him and is clearly devoted to her Lord. All the more reason then to stress, as Chrysostom does, that this Mary is not the harlot mentioned in Matthew 26:7.
Gregory of Nyssa’s account describes how Christ’s absence gives death the chance to do its work. Chrysostom is not slow to point out that even those closest to Jesus are not spared suffering, sorrow and death. Those, he tells us, who are offended by such things ‘do not know that those who are especially dear to God hav it as their lot to ensure such things.’
Peter Chrysologus describes the way in which the miracle of Lazarus is quite different from those where Jesus raised the daughter of Jairus, or the widow’s only son. Here death has already exerted its full power. Jesus lets death do its worst, and then he does His best – and we see here the power of the Son of God writ large in all its glory.
St Augustine comments on the terms in which the sisters wrote to Jesus. They said that the one whom he loved was ill. They did not ask for healing, but expressed their faith that love does not abandon the object of itself; they knew he would not abandon them. But rather, as St Cyril reminds us, Jesus saw that this would be turned to glory of God, when men saw His power; and He and God are one, for here Jesus says that ‘the Son of God’ might be glorified.
Yet the disciples were, as Augustine comments, fearful, so Jesus reproves them. Christ is the day, His Apostles the twelve hours, and it is not the time to withdraw whilst the Light is with them; the day is followed by the hours; the Apostles follow Jesus. St Athanasius reminds us that everyone who walks in the Light will be saved, but those who turn aside and walk in the darkness will be lost. The upright need fear no ill.
Augustine tells us that in saying that Lazarus is only sleeping, Jesus foreshadow what is to come, since all those who die in faith will be raised again, and so they are, indeed, only sleeping. Jesus did not need to go to Lazarus to raise him, but chose to do so in order that all men should know by whose power this miracle was wrought – including in this number his own disciples. Jesus uses this episode to instruct his own disciples who do not see clearly yet. Thomas the twin grasps the notion that one must die with Jesus to be raised with him, and yet he does not know the fullness of what he says; when the moment comes, he, like the others, will not be there. Of all the Apostles, only St John is at the foot of the Cross.
Many of the Fathers dwell in what is, for us, rather gruesome detail, the physical corruption to which the body of Lazarus would have been subject by the fourth day, which is their way of emphasising the power the finality of death – and thus the power Jesus had in overcoming it.
Origen sees in Mary’s absence the fact that she was quietly and prayerfully hopeful, trusting in the Lord, whilst the more active Martha wanted to rush to Jesus and seek his help. She, too, believes unconditionally. Augustine points out that she does not ask Jesus to raise her brother, she leaves to him the decision on what to do; our faith should imitate that; it is His will, not our will that must be done. Jesus is not the God of the dead but of the living, for those who believe on Him shall not die. As Paul tells us in 1 Thess 4:13-14, those who are asleep in Christ will rise with Him. He is the Life and the Resurrection.
Peter Chrysologus tells us that Christ, and Mary and the Jews all weep. That Mary should have wept was natural since she was the sister and had until that point no comforter. The Jews wept because they were in the presence of that death which is the lots of sons of Adam; as he was then, so would they be soon.. Jesus weeps because he is calling to mind the joy which the resurrection will give to those whom he loves. Chrysostom thinks that Jesus weeps here to show how human he is and to show he shares our sorrow. He asks where they have laid him so that the Jews will come with him to see the miracle.
Jesus is moved because he loves his friend, and his heart goes with those who sorrow. Martha, ever the practical one, intervenes to warn Jesus about what will happen if the stone is removed, but He reproaches her for her unbelief. She believes, and it is her belief and that of Mary which. St Cyril tells us, raises their brother to life. Jesus is the source of life and of hope, and if we will trust him then it will end as he wishes. Jesus thanks His Father, as we should, and like him, we should lift our eyes in prayer. This, Athanasius reminds us, is the voice that spoke the world into creation, and the one that will call us from the tomb at the last day. The unbinding of Lazarus is the type of our being freed from the bonds of sin; many of us are like Lazarus, trapped in the tomb until released by the word of Jesus. That word removes from death its sting, and we can look forward to the resurrection and death has to let us go. But the Jews were confused: some believed, some did not. How hard are the hearts of those who are blind.