Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Raising of Lazarus and the emptiness of Hell

Today comes the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, found in John 11:17-44, the only place in the New Testament where the story is found. Jesus goes to the tomb where his friend, Lazarus, has been dead for three days. He hears the anguish of Mary and Martha, and so Jesus orders the dead man to come out, and then tells the startled onlookers "Unbind him and let him go."

For many it is a dark, broody disturbing story. Jesus weeps, Jesus is "disturbed in spirit." The dead man has a stench, we are told, and his new life will not last long. The authorities, hearing of this, immediately begin to plot the death of both Jesus and Lazarus.

The incident can also be heard as a foretelling of the Holy Saturday story of Easter, when Jesus himself goes into the tomb, and to Hell itself to unbind everyone and let them go. The unbinding of people in Hell is at the heart of message of the Gospel, and makes Jesus more than a mere rabbi or wisdom teacher. It is why we describe Jesus as "Savior" and divine.

You will note there is no "Jesus died for your sins" in these stories, and maybe that is another reason the story is hard to take for some. This unbinding comes as a pure act of love with no strings attached, no conditions. Lazarus has not asked to be saved, but salvation comes to him.  It makes all this the harder to comprehend. Humans don't act this way. Only the divine is capable of that.

The placement of the story of Lazarus on the last day of Christmas and the Eve of the Epiphany is meant, I think, to show us the true meaning of the light of Christ coming into our lives. It's not really about magi bearing gifts to Christ, but Christ bearing gifts to us. This light comes in the hardest moments and at the gates of death itself. It is a reminder that Christmas is inextricably connected to Easter and the Resurrection and the empty tomb.

Many theologians have tried to explain this, and many a preacher, including me, has tried as well. The poets sometimes explain this better with fewer words, so I leave you with a quote from one of my favorite contemporary theologians and with a short poem:
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“With this we can say… that Hell exists, as the Church has always maintained; nevertheless it is perfectly possible that there is nobody at all there.”

James Alison, Raising Abel, 1996


But if they were condemned to suffer
this unending torment, sooner or later
wouldn’t they become the holy?

Franz Wright, God’s Silence, 2006
Art: "Mary, Martha and Lazarus," by He Qi

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