The Tomb of Lazarus
It is easy to find the Tomb of Lazarus depressing. For one thing, it lies behind a formidable thirty-foot-high barrier, separating Palestinian Bethany from Israeli Jerusalem. Until recently, Bethany was an easy one-and-a-half-mile direct walk from Jerusalem, so that after our Lord left Bethany to enter Jerusalem in triumph and cleanse the Temple, He returned to spend the night there (Mk. 11:1-11). Ever since then, pilgrims have retraced His triumphant steps from Bethany to Jerusalem. But no longer: since the erection of the barrier, pilgrims must now drive the much longer way around to enter Bethany, and the venerable route followed for centuries is now cut off. This isolation of Bethany behind the barrier impacts directly upon its welfare, and fewer and fewer now come to venerate the tomb of Lazarus. Bethany seems to be living up to its name, which means (according to St. Jerome) “house of affliction.”
There is another reason why sensitive souls might find the tomb of Lazarus depressing—it is in a depressed state. Formerly, the tomb was splendidly adorned by a Christian church. In the pilgrim Egeria’s day in the fourth century, the tomb was part of a large basilica structure and was the center of excited pilgrimage. In a record of her visit there, she writes, “[On Lazarus Saturday] the archdeacon makes this announcement: ‘At one o’clock today let us all be ready at the Lazarium.’ Just on one o’clock, everyone arrives at the Lazarium, which is in Bethany, about two miles away from the city. About half a mile before you get to the Lazarium from Jerusalem, there is a church by the road. It is the spot where Lazarus’ sister Mary met the Lord. All the monks meet the bishop when he arrives there, and the people go into the church. They have one hymn and an antiphon and a reading from the Gospel. Then after a prayer, everyone is blessed and they go on with singing to the Lazarium. By the time they arrive there, so many people have collected that they fill not only the Lazarium itself but all the field around.” The Lazarium visited by Egeria is no more. The building is now in Muslim hands, and not surprisingly they take no pains to beautify a Christian site. One comes upon a small orange sign announcing in Hebrew, Arabic, and English “LAZARUS TOMB”, and one asks oneself, “Is this it? This is the historic Lazarium?” Yep, this is it.
One reaches the tomb itself by climbing down a steep set of steps, facing backwards as if descending a ladder. One wonders how the Christians of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia make their annual procession there on Lazarus Saturday, since the climb cannot be done with any kind of liturgical grace, especially in a cassock. At the bottom of the steps, one finds an ante-chamber and must again crawl through a kind of manhole in the floor to reach the actual burial place of Lazarus. Some have suggested that originally both the tomb and its ante-chamber were on the same level, but that with the passage of years limestone from the ceiling fell down and thus raised the level of the ante-chamber. My diaconal companion and I made the long climb down and at the bottom found absolutely nothing of note. We sang the tropar for Lazarus Saturday, “By raising Lazarus from the dead before Your Passion You confirmed the universal resurrection, O Christ God” in a kind of devotional defiance, trying to adorn with mere words a place tragically lacking any other fitting adornment.
Perhaps there is a lesson for us even in the depressing state of the former Lazarium. Lazarus enjoyed a moment of glory and celebrity after Christ had raised him from the dead. The Gospel recounts that after that miracle, a great crowd of the Jews came to Bethany “not only on account of Jesus, but also to see Lazarus whom He had raised from the dead” (Jn. 12:9). Yet despite such a moment in the sun, Lazarus later died and returned to the dust, there to rest uninterrupted until the final resurrection of all on the Last Day. The tomb of Lazarus seems to have shared his fate: after a moment of glory in the sun of Byzantium, it has returned to the dust of death and neglect, and will probably remain so until the coming of the Lord. It thus testifies to the transient nature of all glory in this age: things may shine for a moment, and seem invincible and eternal. But as the prophet once proclaimed, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flowers fades when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people is grass” (Is. 40:6-7). Yet the time of resurrection and glory will finally return, and we must wait for it with unwearied patience. For as the prophet went on to say and as Lazarus himself knew, “The word of our God will stand forever” (v. 8). Everything in the dust will one day hear the word of Christ and will arise and come forth and live, and those who delight in His word will shine like the sun forever in the Kingdom of the Father. The tomb of Lazarus stands as mute witness to the fading glory of man, and as an abiding hope in the eternal and life-giving word of our Christ our God.