102- The Dead Friend

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While Jerusalem opened all its doors to welcome the pilgrims arriving to celebrate the Passover, we were in hiding in Perea, at the other side of the Jordan. The situation in the capital made it difficult for us and we thought that during those days, it was dangerous for us to show our faces around the place…

Messenger: Pssst… Hey, buddy, I was told I could see Jesus, the prophet, here…

Peter: That’s right. What d’ya want from him?

Messenger: I want to see him. I’ve got a message for him.

Peter: Where did you come from?

Messenger: From Bethany.

Peter: Your name and address…?

Messenger: That’s not important! What are you up to, anyway? I’ve got to see Jesus… it’s urgent.

Jesus was sick. The briny water of Perea had upset him and he had a fever.

When the messenger went inside the house where we were lodged, he saw Jesus lying down on a mat, pale and with eyebags…

Messenger: At last I’ve caught up with you, Nazarene. You hide yourself better than the bats in the caves. The truth is, however, I didn’t expect to see you in this condition…

Jesus: Neither did I…. But as you can see, I’ve been sick for a couple of days…

Messenger: That’s precisely why I came to see you. Martha and Mary, the sisters from Bethany, want you to know that Lazarus is very ill.

Jesus: So the rascal is also in bed…? What’s wrong with him?

Messenger: A serious illness. For three days now, he hasn’t uttered a single word, not even a curse. He doesn’t laugh, nor take in any food. He’s dying….

Peter: Bah, bad seed never dies. Mary simply makes a big fuss over anything, and that’s the problem. I’m sure she pressured you to come here…

Messenger: No… but Martha too. Lazarus is in a serious condition and the two sisters are worried. They don’t know what to do.

When the messenger from Bethany was gone….

Peter: But Jesus, don’t you realize it’s dangerous?

James: They wanted to nab you last week, blazes. If we go back now, we’ll be risking our lives.

Peter: Let’s wait until the Passover. It’s something else when Jerusalem is teeming with people. When the sea is in turmoil, then we can throw in the bait…

Two days after the messenger’s visit, Jesus felt better and wanted to go back to Judea. For some of us, that was a crazy idea.

Jesus: Hey, guys, forget about your fears and begin tying your sandals… The sun only shines for twelve hours and we’ll have to take advantage. We’ll be leaving tomorrow at dawn. Lazarus is waiting for us. Friends are friends, you know.

James: And so are our enemies, Jesus. They’re waiting for us too.

Jesus: Then we must open wide our eyes and ears, James, so we don’t fall into the trap.

Thomas: If they k…k…ki..ll…us, …..then….. l..l..let… it… be… S…s..some..d..day we..a.a.ll..h..a..v..e to… d..d..die.!

Peter: For the first time, I agree with you, Thomas! We all go to Judea, guys, and let the sun shine where it should!

We left Perea the next day. We crossed the Jordan as we ascended through Jericho. After long hours of walk, we finally saw the walls of Jerusalem. We passed by the walls without entering the city. We wanted to get to Lazarus’ inn as soon as possible. We left the Mount Olives behind us, and when we were approaching the small white houses of Bethany, Martha, who was ridding the pathway of dust, rushed to receive us….

Martha: Jesus, you’re here at last!

Jesus: How’s Lazarus, Martha?

Martha: Why, didn’t you know? He’s dead, Jesus, he’s dead… it’s been four days…. Why didn’t you come earlier? We had sent for you… Lazarus was asking about you… he suffered a lot…. Oh, Jesus, it was such a great sorrow!

Martha, her hair disheveled, was wearing a tunic for mourning. Weeping she embraced Jesus. Her sobbings shook her robust body like the morning wind that shook the leaves off the date tree. Soon enough, Jesus’ mother and the women joined in her weeping. Philip and Nathanael were the first to become teary-eyed… and tears ran down Jesus’ face…. We loved Lazarus so much.

Martha: Why did God take him away, Jesus? Why….? Mary and I needed him….

Jesus: Where’s Mary?

Martha: She’s inside the house. She does nothing but weep…. For four days, she hasn’t eaten anything… nor slept….. I’ll go see her…. She’ll be glad to see you…

In spite of her gloom, Martha energetically rushed to the inn. Bereaved, and not knowing what to say, we followed her through the dusty path we had happily traversed often during our trips to the capital… As we crossed the main gate of the inn, Mary came out to meet us. She was with a lot of neighbors who condoled with the sisters after Lazarus’ burial.

Mary: Jesus, why didn’t you come before? Why?

Mary, fell to the ground, pulled her hair and beat her forehead against the ground…

Mary: Damn this life and damn this death!

An Old Woman: May the Lord have mercy on all of us, as we shall also end up in the pit!

Messenger: Poor women…. now they’re all alone…. Who’ll look after them?

A Woman Neighbor: Hey, prophet, why didn’t you come when he was sick? They say you have healed a number of persons! You could have cured him too!

Old Neighbor: This fat man Lazarus was a good man. May our father, Abraham take him in his bosom!

Bethany’s inn did not reek of lamb, wine nor onions, as it used to. It was in mourning. The smell of incense burnt during those days still pervaded the entire household. There were no more laments from the mourners and the music had stopped. A group of neighbors and some guests kept the two sisters company, weeping with them. After washing our feet and seating ourselves in the big hall near the kitchen, we thought Lazarus, with his usual big smile, would appear to us from any corner of the inn to welcome us….

A Man: He was the man with the largest tummy and the biggest heart in the whole of Bethany!

A Woman: You bet, Serapio! If there was ever an honest man in this town, it was your brother, ladies… He was more upright than a tree and was as good as gold….

Mary: He shouldn’t have died, no… He was young and strong.

Old Woman: Patience, my child, patience.

Peter: What the hell did he die of?

Martha: It was so sudden. He fell right here in the kitchen, with a pot in his hand, as if a lightning had burned him…. He was in bed for a couple of days, motionless, and that was it….

Peter: How sad…. So, what do you intend to do now?

Mary: What else can we do, Peter…? My brother was the moving spirit of this inn. Now it’s all over…

Jesus: No, Mary. Lazarus will be happy to see you continue working, so that your business will prosper.

Old Woman: How’s that possible, when the dead are eaten up by worms?

Jesus: Grandma, the dead continue to see us and to love us, because… they continue to live.

Mary: You know that’s not true, Jesus. You just want to console us.

Jesus: Yes, it’s true, Mary. Death is just a brief farewell. After a short time, we don’t see each other. Then at another short time, we shall see each other again…. We weep now, but the time will come when we shall all be together in the house of God, where there shall be no more weeping. Believe me, Mary: the dead are not dead: they continue living with God.

Mary: And my brother too?

Jesus: Sure. Lazarus is not dead. He’s just gone to sleep, to be awakened by the Lord. He’s alive, Mary!

Mary: Alive!… I don’t hear his laughter anymore, nor do I see him enter nor leave that door with his greasy apron! That was only four days ago, and it seems like four years have passed….

Jesus: You’ll see him again, Mary.

Mary: Don’t deceive me, Jesus. With death, everything comes to an end.

Jesus: On the contrary, it’s just the beginning of everything. Look, Mary, if a child who is to be born could speak, he would say no, he doesn’t want to be born… he would think it’s the end of everything for him… the warmth and the tranquility of being near his mother’s heart always. But the moment he is born, then a new life begins because he sees the light of the sun, the different colors of the world…. The same thing happens when we die: we become scared… and we cry… the truth is we are born for the second time, to a life much better than we can dream of….

Mary: That sounds beautiful, Jesus. But what I have seen is, when a person dies, he is thrown into the earth and there he rots.

Jesus: Even the seed gets rotten, after which a new tree is born and later bears flowers and fruits.

Jesus turned to Martha, Lazarus’ other sister, who stood silent by the greasy table, her eyes red with so much weeping….

Jesus: Where’s he buried, Martha?

Martha: In the blacksmith’s garden, behind the patio, Jesus. Do you want to go?

Jesus: Yeah, let’s go….

We all left the inn. It was noontime and the heat of the sun was hurting our eyes. When we reached the garden and got close to the rock where the tomb was, Martha and Mary wept disconsolately…. When Jesus saw them, he covered his face with his hands and began to weep too.

Old Woman: The prophet obviously loved him so much….

Jesus: Lazarus, why didn’t you wait to celebrate the Passover with us?… Why the haste, buddy?

Jesus, his eyes filled with tears, stared at the round and white tombstone. He was praying…. We too, prayed in between sobs, before our friend’s tomb…..

Jesus: Father, I thank you because you did not allow the earth to swallow the dead. It is your hand that delivers them from death to life, like you did to our forefathers by parting the Red Sea…. You are the resurrection and life and everyone who believes in you, although they have died, shall live… Yes, Father, the dead will rise! Let your Spirit from above come down and breathe life to all the dead, so that they may live!

Not even a leaf was moving. Jesus was trembling…

Jesus: Roll back the stone, please…

Martha: But Jesus…

Jesus: Yes, Martha, that there may be air inside…

Martha: Jesus, what’re you talking about? It’s been four days already…. His body must be stinking by now.

Jesus: Do as I say, Martha. Please roll the stone now…

We all felt uneasy…. But James, Judas, Simon and the stonemason went near the tomb and began to move the stone. We were all trembling like we were at the edge of a precipice. No one was weeping anymore… we were all tired and weary. We could not get our sight off that black hole that was beginning to form before our eyes… When the tomb was opened, we felt a rush of cold air blending with the penetrating scent of myrrh…

Jesus: Lazarus, brother, come! Come back to life!

Bethany was a couple of miles away from Jerusalem, near the valley of Josaphat. According to the beliefs of my countrymen, God shall raise the dead at the end of the world. That spring morning, in a garden of Bethany, Jesus gave us a preview of the joy and surprises of the great Day of the Lord!

*Comments*
During the last phase of his life, Jesus learned about secrecy. He had to hide himself as a precautionary measure in the face of the growing hatred of the authorities for him (Jn 10:39-40; 11:54). From Perea, at the other side of the Jordan, he went to Bethany to find out about Lazarus’ illness. Bethany is a small village situated about six kilometers east of Jerusalem. At present, one can visit a tomb venerated by tradition as Lazarus’ tomb. One has to descend through the narrow and deep steps to reach a very small space where there is a stone table, where the body of the brother of Martha and Mary was said to have been lain. On one of the damp walls are written Jesus’ words according to the gospel of John: “I am the resurrection and the life.”

The story of Lazarus’ resurrection is found only in the gospel of John. As in the other accounts solely narrated by this evangelist, we are faced with a vague and careful theological explanation in the form of a narration to focus an important point, by the use of a number of details. Jesus’ community of disciples has been listening to his message of liberation, likewise confirming its gestures, activities and signs. In death, however, it sees the interruption of life, the insurmountable defeat of the whole plan of liberation. In this theological narration, John wishes to give his response of faith to this anguish Death is not the frontier; for him who believes in Jesus, it is never and ultimate end.

When Jesus decides to go back to Bethany, which is so close to Jerusalem, his apostles oppose him. They are scared. The authorities are after his neck. He challenges them, however, risking his life to be near his friend Lazarus, who needs him. John also wants to point out one important detail of this account: for life to shine in plenitude, the fear of death must first be overcome.

According to popular belief, death becomes definite on the third day, when the dead body begins to decompose, eliminating the personal features of the deceased. When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus is already dead “for four days.” That is, he is definitely dead, no doubt about it. Given these details, John wants to tell us that having faith in Jesus does not indefinitely prolong the physical life of the human being. Jesus is neither a doctor nor a wizard who can prevent death. But faith in him gives us a definite life that can be extended beyond physical death. For the just, death is no more than a “phase,” as Jesus will say. Like the passage through the Red Sea, bringing the Israelites from the land of bondage to the land of freedom. Jesus – with his life and his words – has brought God’s plan to us: He did not create us that we might die definitely; our fate is not death but a full and definitive life. This is where the solemnity of John’s evangelical text lies. A few days before his own death, Jesus reveals in Lazarus the totality of the gospel: God will also free us from death.

In Jesus’ time, the tombs were constructed by carving them in natural rocks, in the form of caves. To cover a tomb, a round stone was usually placed at the entrance, which would turn like an enormous wheel. Jesus wept before the tomb of his friend. He loved Lazarus deeply and felt sorry for his death and the sufferings of his sisters. God, whom we see in Jesus, weeps in the face of human suffering, and is one with us in our sadness. Before Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus also invokes the God of life and he does it with the words of the prophet, Ezekiel (Ez 37:1-14), proclaiming that all sufferings shall be overcome, including death. The prophet proclaimed the solemn resurrection of the “dead bones” of the oppressed people of Israel. The stone slab at the entrance to the tomb is a symbol of despair. But God is capable of removing this obstacle. Thus, Jesus removes the stone, so that the “air” can enter, the biblical symbol par excellence of God’s Spirit. It is a moment of extraordinary solemnity, and therefore what this narration wishes to convey is perhaps the ultimate word of the message of Jesus, the most profound conviction of the Christian faith. Death as the ultimate end of our life is the maximum point of human weakness. If everything comes to an end with death, then the essence of all our human existence is overshadowed. And this is true not only from the individual point of view, of “my” life, but also from the collective viewpoint. How can there be complete happiness in this new world “of justice” (1 P 3:13) if the dead who made it possible are swallowed up by the earth…. And from here, may the hope in life after death be validated, even for the present life, and for history.

(Jn 11:1-44)

102- The Dead Friend

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