|29 - FIFTH SUNDAY. TOMB OF LAZARUS COMES INTO SIGHT, April 10, 2022|
Mark’s Gospel this morning says: ‘And they were on the Path going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them, and those who were following Him were trembling with fear.’
We’ve been here before. Our Gospel reading for Friday, Jan 28 (11 weeks ago), ended with this verse. At that time, we were coming away from the Jordan, out of the Winter Pascha, on our way to the opening of the Lenten Triodion (the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee), which was then two Sundays away.
The Path of the pre-Lenten lectionary led us to Jerusalem and to the LORD’s Tomb in a Garden at the summit of Golgotha outside Jerusalem, just before Great Lent began. Great Lent itself began with the rite of mutual forgiveness; with this, we descended with the Myrrhbearing women into the stillness of the LORD’s Sabbath Rest in order to take up the prayer of the heart given us by the Church. Our Lenten work since then has been centered on this effort to descend with our mind into our heart in order to stand there in prayer at the LORD’s Tomb, to prepare ourselves for that moment when the stone is rolled away, and we can enter and hear the Angel’s proclamation: ‘He is not here. He is risen! Lo, He goes before you into Galilee!’
So, here we are again, on the Path going up to Jerusalem; but this time it’s very different. For one thing, we did not go through Bethany the first time; there was no raising of Lazarus. Then, of course, we were not fasting for Jesus was with us visibly, as it were, on this side of the tomb. But now as we begin to follow the Path ‘up to Jerusalem,’ Jesus’ body is in the Tomb, on the other side of the large stone. Then, we were going up to Jerusalem by way of the NT, for our daily readings were drawn from the NT. But this second time, we are going up to Jerusalem by way of the OT, for our daily readings are drawn from Moses and the prophets. We should be reading the OT with different eyes, different ears, because the very WORD of the LORD we encounter in the OT is the same WORD who is now dead in the Tomb of His Sabbath Rest, on the other side of the very large stone. But our understanding of the Savior’s death and burial also should be different, for it is now illumined by our readings from Moses and the prophets.
Our first time to Jerusalem, we were taught lessons about the habits of mind and spirit we needed to be cultivating in preparation for the Lenten journey we were about to begin: a longing to see Jesus and to receive Him into our house, humility and contrition, a resolve to repent, the practicing of mercy, and a striving to forgive as God forgives. But this second time, the lessons have been not so much ‘lessons’ as ‘illuminations,’ revealing to us the sinful state of our soul in the Light of the Savior’s Cross that shines from the Fast; but not just from the Fast. It also shines in the readings from Moses and the prophets.
I think these illuminations are distilled to their essence in the Church’s Lenten prayers just in these last two weeks. For example: ‘I lie in the tomb of slothfulness, and the hardness of my heart weighs upon me like a stone. I have no understanding of Thine ever-living word and no feeling of Thy fear, O Savior’ [LT 263] ‘Slain by my many sins, I am imprisoned in the tomb of negligence, and upon me lies the stone of despair.’ [LTS 270] See how the death of Lazarus is an icon, a mirror, of my own soul.
Now that we’re to the end of Great Lent, having fasted now for five weeks, we may find ourselves feeling bitterness or indifference, or a pall of scorn and contempt, a slow-burning malice, a sneering cynicism, hanging over our soul like a sulfuric mist. This, I believe, is the stone of hardness that covers my heart which lies slain, as the Lenten texts say, by the passions in the tomb of slothfulness and weighs upon me like the stone that covered the tomb of Lazarus [LTS 263 & 267]. I believe these are the spiritual form of that enmity St Paul speaks of (Eph 2.14-16), and which St James identifies as ‘friendship with the world,’ (Ja 4.4) beginning to show itself in us.
That is, coming now to the end of Great Lent, if we have been fasting and praying according to our strength, our experience may be that the Fast, far from making me feel more holy, is exposing my piety for what in fact it is: nothing more than a veneer of spiritual pride and vainglory hovering like a dark vapor over my soul’s ground of bitterness and indifference, scorn, contempt, cynicism.
The words of the Church’s prayer at Matins this next Tuesday are to Lazarus, but clearly, they are meant for me: ‘O wise Lazarus, prepare now for thy burial; for tomorrow thou shalt die and leave this life. Look at the tomb in which thou shalt dwell.’ (LTS 279) That is, look into your mortality. See past your wishful thinking and know that your end is the grave.
Now take note that, on this Path of the Lenten Fast, we’ve been moving in the realm of death! Jesus went before us the first time, when we were making our way into the Lenten Triodion, to lead us to His own Tomb; now, the second time, He is leading us first to the tomb of Lazarus. Only from there will He lead us into Holy Week and back to His own Tomb. Perhaps we now understand why those who were following Jesus ‘up to Jerusalem,’ as it says, were trembling with fear! The Path of the LORD is the Path of death, and it goes straight into hell! But not as into a place where we aren’t, but as into the very place where we are in the deep of our heart. We did not see before that our heart is a tomb infested with demons and their passions, because our spiritual eyes were blind to our heart’s desperate corruption from enmity, from our friendship with the world.
But I think this may be the very Path the LORD was speaking of to His prophet, Isaiah: ‘I will bring the blind by a way they did not know; I will lead them in paths they have not known. I will make darkness light before them, And crooked places straight.’ (Isa 42.16) That is, this is the Path we took when we followed the Myrrhbearing women at the LORD’s Tomb and descended with them into the stillness of the LORD’s Sabbath Rest in order to prepare spices and ointments, and to pray with our mind in our heart to the LORD in His Tomb, on the other side of the large stone.
When we see that this is real, it is not a pious fantasy, do we not begin to tremble with fear? What does our soul do then? Perhaps we find ourselves responding like James and John: immediately after Jesus tells them of His impending death, they in effect ask Him to indulge their lust for power. Did they not hear Him? How are they so insensitive to the LORD’s impending death? Is lust for power, the effort to control others, a refusal to face the reality of death? Is it the blindness of a stony heart trying to keep itself from crumbling into dust? See how this lust for power, this effort to control others in so many different ways both subtle and not so subtle, this symptom of a hardened heart, separates me from God and from others because it makes me to be ‘as though I am a god’ who does not die.
Our two Gospels give us another response, however: it is the response of the ‘sinful woman,’ the biblical image of St Mary of Egypt. In which of these two icons can you feel the chords of your deep heart beginning to vibrate? In which of these can you feel your soul being cleansed down to its core? In which of these do you feel a Light chasing away the darkness? In which of these two icons do you feel the stone being rolled away from the tomb of your heart, and your heart coming to life?
There are no tears of contrition in the icon of James and John, only words of ‘soul-destroying greed’ in answer to Jesus’ impending death. There are no words in the icon of the sinful woman, only tears of contrition in anticipation of His impending death. There is only a rebuke in the one; in the other, a cleansing of sins. Might we have come upon what it is that rolls the stone away from our heart and raises us to life? It’s the tears of contrition from a heart ‘wounded by love’ for the Savior.
In faith, let us dare to draw near and peer into the icon, the mirror, of these two Gospels. See how the Church draws us away from hardness of heart not by lecturing us but by drawing us into the story of the ‘sinful woman’ so that we can experience the sinful woman’s heart softened by her contrition and love for the merciful Savior as our own, and lust for power withers away. Now the prayer given us by the Church as we draw near the tomb of Lazarus becomes our own: ‘Roll back from my humble soul, O Christ the WORD, the heavy stone of grievous slothfulness, and raise me from the tomb of insensitivity, that I may glorify Thee!’ (LTS 285) Take from me the dead heart of stone and put in me a living heart of flesh, that I may follow You into Jerusalem on that hidden Path of Your Cross that makes the darkness Light and the crooked places straight; that I may follow You all the way into the dread and glorious mystery of Your tomb and out into the Garden, and with the angels, the Myrrhbearing women, the holy apostles and all the prophets, saints and martyrs, sing Your Holy Resurrection. Amen!