“‘...whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live....’”
For whose benefit did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead? What did Lazarus himself gain? Wasn’t he better off—a step closer to Heaven—after leaving this world? From all that we are and are not told by the Scriptures, we gather that Jesus brought Lazarus back to the same sort of life that he had previously had. Presumably Lazarus died a second time some years later. So what did Lazarus get out of being brought back to life, except for a few more years in this vale of tears?
Did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead for the sake of Martha and Mary? Certainly they were overjoyed to see their brother alive again. They were blessed not only emotionally, but also practically. In the first century, they—as women—would have depended largely on their brother for their sustenance. So was Jesus simply “playing favorites” on behalf of two close friends?
Why, during the three years of His public ministry, didn’t Jesus raise many others from the dead? Certainly in the first century adults had a much lower life expectancy than today, and infant mortality was very high. Why didn’t Jesus focus His divine power on raising all those persons from the dead? Was Jesus showing preferential treatment, or is there something more to His miracle?
There is something more. But to see it, and be better prepared for Holy Week, we have to see the bigger picture of St. John the Evangelist’s account of the Gospel.
Just as the entire Bible is divided into the Old and New Testaments, so St. John’s Gospel account is divided into two parts. St. John himself didn’t give titles to these two halves, but in modern times they are called “The Book of Signs” and “The Book of Glory”. Just as the Old Testament is full of signs that foreshadow the Messiah who is to come, so the first half of St. John’s Gospel account is full of signs that foreshadow the glory revealed in the second half. In fact, “The Book of Signs” in St. John’s Gospel account has exactly seven signs. St. John specifically calls them “signs” as he builds up to the events of Holy Week.
The seven signs that St. John the Evangelist records are very different from each other. The first of them occurs at the wedding at Cana. Jesus turns water into wine: certainly a miracle, but certainly not a matter of life or death. In fact, compared to the raising of Lazarus from the dead, this first miracle seems almost trivial. But that’s part of John’s point. He is building to a crescendo as he narrates “The Book of Signs”, and the raising of Lazarus is the final sign. It’s the sign that most clearly points to the glory that it foreshadows.
Jesus worked this miracle to reveal as unmistakably as possible who He is and what power He has: the divine Son of God who can raise the dead to life because He is the Creator of life. Jesus also raised Lazarus for the sake of you, who are a sinner. Jesus worked this miracle in order to draw all sinners to Himself.
Of course, there’s an important difference between this final sign and the glory it foreshadows. To reflect on this difference, consider the Latin adage: “Nemo dat quod non habet”, meaning “No one gives what he doesn’t have.” Jesus could not have transformed water into wine unless He “had it within Him” to so. Likewise, Jesus could not have raised Lazarus from the dead unless He had that power within Him. Jesus as a divine Person had and has power over all creation, including human life.
However, what about at the end of Good Friday? After Jesus expired on the Cross, what did Jesus have? In the view of His enemies, He was nothing. He was finished. Jesus after His death could give nothing and do nothing, because He had nothing. But they were wrong.
Jesus’ death at 3:00 in the afternoon on Good Friday was His finest hour. It shows most clearly who He is. It shows that from His Cross He reigns as Christ the King. Jesus from within death displays the depth of the power that He has over death.
On Easter Sunday morning, God the Father did not raise the corpse of Jesus to life as Jesus raised Lazarus’ corpse to life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that God the Son “effects His own Resurrection by virtue of His divine power” . The Catechism then links this assertion to the Lord’s own words: “I lay down my life, that I may take it again.... I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” [Jn 10:17-18]. Jesus spoke these words in the chapter before the one from which today’s Gospel passage comes.
At the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday, why do we kiss the corpus of Jesus? This action is not only a sad, tender act of gratitude. Nor is it only a heartfelt act of contrition. It is an act of adoration, worshipping not the wooden corpus itself, but the Savior beyond our sight who through His very death holds the power to destroy our sins.