Bethany is nothing like it used to be. When I stayed in the Holy Land, my home away from home was a convent that was just up the hill from Lazarus’ tomb. There’s a church there now, of course, and the tomb is a short distance from it. Across the street is a vendor, and if you’re there as part of a small group, he’ll let you go into the tomb and shout: “Lazarus, come out.” so you can do what Lazarus did. So I’ve heard: when my group was there, there were too many of us.
We were there as students and we are also there as pilgrims. Pilgrimage is something that has been a tradition throughout history, and Jesus disciples were on an unusual pilgrimage in today’s Gospel. It’s a pilgrimage fraught with danger and suspense. It’s a pilgrimage of unbelievable things happening. Lazarus is in a different kind of tomb that we use. They would carve chambers in the hills with ledges for bodies to lie on. After a year only the skeleton would be left and the bones were then collected and put into a box. There was a stone across the entrance as a door: eventually, someone would reenter. Tombs were used by families and eventually they would be collected together in one container.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is always on top of the situation, always in control, but this story is different. He knows what’s going on every step of the way, yet in spite of that, he perturbed and even moved to tears when he encounters his friend’s suffering over the loss of Lazarus. It might seem strange, knowing how things are going to turn out, to give in to emotionality like that, especially when you know it’s going to be gone shortly.
Four days is enough to make sure that someone is dead. Four days is a guarantee that this was no passing phenomena where someone would fall into a coma and then awaken from it. When Jesus gave the order to roll the stone away, it made sense that the only thing that would happen is a stench.
We create tombs for ourselves. We imprison ourselves in our attitudes, our priorities, our prejudices. The stone that lies across our tombs can have different names: pride, despair, hopelessness. We can create a stone so heavy that we cannot move it; a stone that we look at and say: “no way, I don’t have the strength, I don’t have the will, I deserve it. I’ll just stay here.”
Jesus isn’t going to let us lie here. He’s in control, although He’s completely present to us and what we’re feeling here and now. He respects where we are even though He knows we aren’t going to stay there, weeps with us even though He knows our tears will be short lived. Jesus calls us to walk out into the light. We undertake the work of Lent so we hear Jesus’ call, so we can walk out away from our self-created tombs into the light. We undertake the work of Lent so that when Jesus cuts the linen that shrouds us, we can walk free. That’s what Jesus calls us to, to walk toward the light and to be free. The question today is: do you hear the voice saying “Lazarus come forth. Come forth.”