One may look upon death, as did antiquity, as a shadowy, inexplicable fate hovering over existence and infusing it with melancholy. Or as science sees it: the simple fact of organic disintegration. Thus conceived, death belongs so intrinsically to life, that one might define life as the movement towards death. One may greet death ecstatically as the Great, the Unspeakable, the Dionysian Mystery in which life culminates; or one may relegate it to the farthest corner of the mind, crowding it to the very brink of the consciousness and behaving as if it were non-existent. Death may also be regarded as the ultimate way out of the labyrinth of existence, a leap to be taken calmly or in despair. But as soon as we compare any one of these conceptions with Jesus’ words on the subject, it becomes obvious how differently he speaks.
— Romano Guardini, The Lord
On the fifth Sunday of Lent, we hear about the raising of Lazarus. This is the last of the three Scrutinies undertaken by the Elect - those who will be received into full communion with the Church during the Easter Vigil. The scrutinies guide the Elect into a deeper understanding of repentance and belief.
First, Christ is the living water to the Samaritan woman at the well.
Second, Christ is the true light of the world, bringing sight to the man born blind.
Finally, today: Christ is the resurrection and the life.
In each of these encounters with the Lord, the individual is permanently changed. The Samaritan woman returns to her village and urges others to come and see this man who knew everything about her. The Lord remains with them, and many come to believe. The man born blind progresses from simple facts - I was once was blind, and now I see - to possibilities - He is a prophet and finally, to adoration: Lord, I believe.
Lazarus moves from life to death, and into life again. The Lord has raised others: the daughter of Jairus, the widow’s son. The former is in the intimate surroundings of her bedroom - she is only asleep, he says. The second is almost nonchalant - the young man is raised almost in passing, as the Lord and his followers encounter the procession of the bier at the city’s gates.
But Lazarus is raised before a great crowd in the Lord’s final miracle before entering Jerusalem. Moreover, Jesus deliberately waited before returning and did not mince words with his followers: Lazarus is dead, not “asleep,” like the young girl.
By the time he returns to Bethany, four days have passed since his friend was laid in the tomb. The sisters of Lazarus are mourning: Lord, if only you had been here. Jesus is deeply moved; he weeps. He orders the stone removed, prays to his Father, and calls to Lazarus “in a loud voice.”
…behind the visible event, deep in the last recesses of the spirit, rages a battle…It is against the enemy of salvation that Jesus warns. Christ conquers death by conquering him to reigns in death: Satan. And he does not vanquish by magic, nor by superior spiritual force, but simply by being what he is: invulnerable to the root and vital through and through. He is life itself, that life which is grounded in perfect love to the Father. This is Jesus’ strength
— Romano Guardini, The Lord
Here there is no subtle progression, only a sudden reversal. Lazarus emerges from the tomb, still wrapped in his burial cloths.
The distractions of this world count for nothing in the face of this final, ultimate truth. Death, as Guardini writes, is not something that is simply tacked on to our life, but rather the direct outcome of the sort of live we live. In the act of our dying, a condition that is already present in our sinful nature asserts itself but which nevertheless should not exist. The totality of our disordered existence is made manifest in a single moment.
…Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings,
The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre.
— William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis (ll. 34-38)
To live a life of faith in Christ is to deny mortality the final word on the matter. The path to that blessed assurance leads first through Gethsemane and Golgotha.
Lazarus himself largely fades from view afterward but the word of his raising quickly spreads, one of the main reasons for Jesus causing such a commotion on entering Jerusalem a few days later. He is welcomed by jubilant crowds who will ultimately call for his execution.