Dear Ones, Great Lent is done. The journey has ended. And where has it dropped us? At the door of a tomb. It is a metaphor for the earthly life of each and every one of us--isn't it? But the great 40-Day Fast doesn't just leave us standing in front of that tomb in Bethany. It leads us to a feast--the raising of Lazarus, the very man who was lying dead in that tomb. The raising of Lazarus is a pivotal point in Jesus’s ministry in at least two ways. First, by raising Lazarus who had been dead four days, Jesus reveals to everyone his absolute power over death. The hymns of the Church tell us that this final manifestation of His power was particularly appointed to make it clear to His disciples that his own death would be voluntary. Having complete power over death, Jesus gives His life, no one takes it from Him. In St. John’s Gospel, this is further reinforced in the Garden of Gethsemane when the arresting soldiers fall down when Jesus identifies himself by saying, "I AM!" They cannot force Him to go with them, but He does so, willingly.
At the same time, the raising of Lazarus is also the pivotal act that forces the religious leaders to do something to stop Jesus. The high priest realizes that now all of the people will believe in Him, as we see manifest on Palm Sunday. The Gospel tells us that crowds had gathered because they had heard that Jesus had raised Lazarus. The religious leaders feared that the crowd’s enthusiasm for Jesus would upset the tenuous peace they currently enjoyed with the occupying Romans and, perhaps most importantly, their own position of power made secure by maintaining the status quo.
And so, in this divine act of raising Lazarus, Jesus both triggers the final chain of events leading to His arrest and crucifixion, and, manifests His authority over the whole process, even over death itself.
But isn’t this the nature of existence as we know it? The fruit manifests the tree, and within the fruit are the seeds of new growth, of new life. When Jesus the Life of All speaks, the fruit is life, even for a man four-days dead. And the seed of this fruit is His own death, which manifests even greater life – meaning that all those in the tombs shall arise! What did the Lord say in today's Gospel? "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me though he were dead, yet shall he live!"
In our own lives this too is what we experience. The actual fruit of our lives, as disappointing as it often is, manifests what kind of tree we are – fallen, sick, in need of transformation. Yet this disappointing fruit, our failures, our mistakes, our sins, bears the seeds of new life; for how we respond to our failures to a large extent determines our growth.
Jesus, the Life of All, enters our sad and fallen world as the ultimate fruit-bearing seed. He plants the tree of resurrection in the midst of the earth. This is the Tree of Life which grew in Eden of old, the Tree whose fruit we now eat as the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the Resurrection and the Life. "O taste and see that the Lord is good" says Psalm 34:8.
This reference to a sweet taste allows me to diverge just a bit and say something about Lazarus himself. We all know that he fled from Palestine to Cyprus because the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem threatened his life. It says so in the Scriptures: “So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were abandoning them and believing in Jesus”
(John 12: 10-11). We also know that the Apostle Paul consecrated him to be the first bishop there in the city of Kition, modern-day Larnaca. The Church's tradition tells us that Lazarus' experiences in Hades, the waiting place for the dead, made him a very serious person for the remainder of his life. He only laughed once, they say, and that was because he saw a man steal a clay pot and he remarked to those standing near him "Behold, clay stealing clay!" But did you know this - for the remainder of his earthly life St. Lazarus ate only sweets!
Because of the sweetness of his relationship with Christ, and because of his complete confidence in the sweetness of Christ's promises concerning the General Resurrection and eternal life, Lazarus' diet was a witness to and a foretaste of his faith. Hence, in many places in the Orthodox world, sweet treats are distributed on this day, not only to children, but to all the faithful who celebrate the wonderful feast of the Raising of Lazarus on this day.
“O taste and see that the Lord is good.” That is the sweetness of our Christ who goes to die for us. Soon he will descend the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem below like in the beginning when God’s “Almighty word leaped down from heaven out of (His) royal throne, into the midst of a land of destruction” as Solomon writes in Wisdom 18:15. Every word he speaks and every miracle he performs he does in order to assure us of his love and the sweetness of his word, as David sings in another place, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 118:103) and again, “more to be desired more than gold, and much precious stone: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10 LXX). Amen.