A homily delivered by Fr. Alexander Tefft (here):
O Lord, thy voice destroyed the dominion of hell. (Vespers of Lazarus Saturday)
How can you tell that someone is dead? How can you be sure? Legally certain? Simple. Hold a mirror up to the lips. No breath? They are dead. But only apply mouth-to-mouth. The body may start breathing. So, how can you tell that it is dead? Simple. Feel a pulse. No heartbeat? But apply skilful pressure to the chest. The body may start moving. Then, surely, a body is dead when the brain stops. But a brain-dead body still excretes waste. A brain-dead mother can still deliver a baby from her womb. But, surely, a body is dead when the limbs are stiff and immovable; when the flesh turns as cold as the air around it and the skin turns – shall we say? – ‘deathly’ pale. But it can take up to two whole hours for these symptoms to occur. The only proof of death, beyond all doubt, is when a body turns into … something else. A ‘simpler’ form of life. The body that enjoyed the scent of a rose, marvelled at a sunset, or reached out and touched a hand that it loved becomes nothing more than a host of single-cell organisms. Tiny life forms, simple life forms, take the place of a mind that reasoned and remembered, created and suffered … and loved. When you are dead, you become simple. Your body is ‘simplified’ … by nature itself.
‘Death is only natural’. You hear it on radio or television. You read it in magazines. The awkward minister at a funeral tells you: ‘He’s gone to a better place’. As though the soul escaped, Hindu-style, from the ‘prison’ of its body. For some Christians, death is simple. Life is simple. The Gospel is simple. Obey the rules, give to the poor, and then you die. ‘Death is simple’, the atheist agrees. Your brain stops, you are gone. Meanwhile, lead a clean life. Obey the rules, give to the poor, and then you die. Simple. Gone. Erased, like a rat. Or an amoeba. A simpler form of life. Nothing complicated. Rats and roaches and amoebas die every day. Live a good life, then give nature her due. Let nature take back what belongs to her. So say atheists, agnostics, and other … simpler forms of life. So says anyone who has never really lived.
Death is simple for them. People too cynical to notice that they are already dead. The people too young to have looked deeply into the dying eyes of someone that they love. But only look into the eyes of the person you love more than life, as they lie dying. Then, tell me whether death is simple. Tell me whether it is natural. Tell me that the hand that you hold is ‘replaceable’ with the paw of a rat. An old broken toy, ready to throw away.
If death is simple, life is cheap. If death is natural, then I am dead from the moment that I am born. Nameless and faceless, like the rats and roaches before me, I come into this world, where nature kills every thing born of her; and, like those millions of ‘simpler’ lives born only to die, I will fall into the abyss and be no more.
That is, if I belong to nature. Not to God.
For our Lord Jesus Christ, nothing is simple. Life is not simple; why else would he speak in parables? Why speak in paradoxes: ‘He who would save his life, must lose it’? Death is not simple. Least of all the death of his friend. Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary, is no nameless face in the crowd. He eats at his table in Bethany. He shares with him. He loves him. So, when Jesus learns that Lazarus is dead, he weeps. But he promises – he swears – nature will not have the last word. ‘I believe’, Martha tells Jesus, ‘I believe that my brother will rise on the Last Day’. ‘He will rise – now’, Jesus declares. ‘How can he?’ says Martha, always the practical one. ‘He has been in the tomb four days. His body is rotting, it’s turning into …’ simpler forms of life. But Jesus makes no peace with nature. ‘Remove the stone’, he commands. ‘Only believe and you will see the glory of God’. He prays. He says no magic words. He looks into the abyss. He looks into the black belly of nature. Into nameless, faceless death. He cries out: ‘Lazarus, come forth!’
Is it any wonder that the chief priests hate Lazarus? He is an insult to nature; and to the simple Gospel: obey the rules, and then you die. On account of Lazarus, those who saw the dead man walk out of the cave, bound in bandages, with his face covered, leave the simple old religion behind. They start following Jesus. Not a rabbi who teaches ‘simple’ rules. They follow the Conqueror of death. They follow the arch-rebel against nature and all the laws of nature. Born of a virgin without human seed. A voice that makes the lame to walk and the blind to see. The voice that wakened Lazarus out of death: and thereby, destroyed the dominion of hell. Mary anoints his feet with precious oil. ‘Stop her!’ shouts Judas. ‘She knows the rules. She should have sold the ointment and given to the poor’. ‘Leave her alone’, Jesus commands. ‘She is anointing me for the final combat. I came into this world, not to make bad men good – but to make dead men alive. Lazarus, her brother, is no mere, nameless victim of nature. He is my friend: and the first-fruits of the Gospel itself’.
Beloved in Christ: by raising Lazarus from the dead, the Conqueror of death guarantees that each one of us will rise. Each one, irreplaceable. Each, absolutely unique – and so, uniquely loved by God. We are no ‘simple’ forms of life, as the atheist would have us to be. We follow no ‘simple’ Gospel. We do not drop gently into the abyss of death. Today, we take up the palm leaves of victory and declare to death: ‘I am not a rat or a roach or an amoeba. I am a man’. I smell the scent of a rose as no one else. I marvel at a sunset as though the sun never set before. I reach out and touch the hand that I love. I suffer, I create, I love – and no one on earth can ever take my place. Faceless nature will never have the last word. Six days before the Passover, Mary anoints the feet of Christ for combat; and in six days, the Conqueror of death will descend into the abyss of nature. He will descend and slice it open from inside. This is the Gospel – nothing simpler. This is the Gospel –nothing less. This day, we cry ‘Hosanna’ to the God who weeps for us. We cry ‘Hosanna’ to him who stands at the door of our own tomb and cries to every one of us: ‘Lazarus, come forth!’