In an earlier issue of From the Housetops (No. 51), Brother Francis wrote an article on the four senses of Holy Scripture. The piece was intended to help readers study Scripture by employing a traditional method used throughout the ages of the Church. The present offering is a reading of St. John’s account of Lazarus’ resurrection (Jn. 11:1-44), according to those different senses. It is not intended to exhaust all of the possible spiritual senses in which the text can be read. As we bask in the glory of Our Risen Lord, we pray that it may aid the Faith and devotion of our readers.
The Literal Sense
Only weeks before entering into His bitter Passion, Our Lord Jesus Christ prefigured for us His glorious Resurrection. Lazarus of Bethany, Mary and Martha’s brother, was sick and dying. The two sisters sent for Jesus, Who was then staying in another city of the same name, Bethany beyond the Jordan . This Bethany , where John the Baptist had been baptizing, was two days away from the Bethany in Judea . Through a messenger, Martha and Mary sent for Jesus, Who delayed two days after receiving the message; whereupon, He announced to the disciples that He would again go into Judea, even though He knew His life would be in danger there. By this time, Lazarus was already dead two days. Arriving on the scene, Jesus first spoke to Martha (who greeted him outside of the city) and then to Mary, who was almost disconsolate with grief. After these conversations, Jesus asked to be led Lazarus’ tomb, where He Himself groaned and wept. He called for the stone blocking the cave-tomb to be rolled back, to which Martha objected that, after four days of being in the tomb, Lazarus’ corpse would have begun to putrefy and stink. Jesus cast off her objection, reminding her that He had told her she would see the glory of God. Then, calling out in a loud voice, Our Lord summoned Lazarus from the grave, who came out still bound in the winding bands and facial napkin that were customary to the Jews of those days. Many of those present believed in Jesus when the miracle happened, while some went to tell the Pharisees of the occurrence. The chief priests and Pharisees took counsel together, and on this occasion, decided that Jesus must die.
Martha and Mary
Martha and Mary were righteous Jews. As such, they represent the faithful of the Old Dispensation, who awaited the coming of the Redeemer. Martha is the embodiment, in one person, of those who toiled and labored in their ordinary daily life, those who kept the Faith amid great trials and — as was always the case — in the midst of people who were not holy. The lot of those sincerely seeking to obey God’s Law in the Old Testament was, in many ways, more difficult than ours, especially given the lack of the graces and blessings we have in the New Testament. To keep the Law, which minutely regulated one’s life, was quite difficult. In Martha, we can contemplate the toils of the Jewish woman, whose work in preparing the family’s meals was augmented by the dietary regulations of the Mosaic Law. Jesus told her — and it wasn’t just a chastisement — “thou art careful and art troubled about many things…” (Lk. 10:41). 1 Mary represents those called to the higher vocation: the prophets, priests, and Levites, the Nazarites, and hermits of Carmel , all of whom had special vocations, higher vocations of serving God more intimately. Jesus had said of her, “Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Lk. 10:42 ). Both of these kinds of pious Jews awaited the coming of the Redeemer, Who was to be the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament.
The preceding is a variation of the very common interpretation of Martha and Mary as representing the active and contemplative lives. All Catholics should spend time in contemplation, yet all have the duties of their state in life. We are all part active and part contemplative. This is true even of religious. However, to point to those who specialize in one, while not neglecting the other and vice versa, is to distinguish between the active and contemplative forms of religious life. Jesuits are Marthas; Carthusians are Marys. Sisters of Mercy are Marthas; Carmelite Nuns are Marys.
There is another angle from which we may look at Martha and Mary. The former was the elder, and the latter, the younger. Martha was not a notorious sinner (at least we are not told so), but Mary was. So, we can picture Martha, for her entire life, being the good, obedient, hard-working Jewess we meet in the Scriptures. Mary, not so. Most of her life was wasted on sin, sins of the flesh included. Martha worked in external things; Mary, when converted, became the very type of the contemplative soul, as mentioned above. This pair gives us the two categories of Adam’s children who populated the world B.C.: The faithful of the Ancient Alliance and the Gentiles. For the most part, the Gentiles had fallen into idolatry, sensuality, and all manner of blasphemy and moral wickedness imaginable. St. Paul described them as the “wild olive” which was “made partaker of the root and of the fatness of the olive tree” (Rom. 11:17 ). This is Mary. The Jews had their imperfect, as-yet-unfulfilled covenant, which had only shadows and figures of the good things to come. This is Martha.
Both Jews and Gentiles called for the coming of the Messias (for there were good, believing Gentiles, like Job and Ruth). The sisters, then, represent the entire A.D. human race, praying and hoping for the salvation of God. As the ancient alliance was effected through the ministry of angels, they worked through an angel — a messenger — to get their petition to God: “Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick” (Jn. 11:3). “He — that is, Man, the human race, whom You love and created in Your divine image —he is sick with sin and only You can help him.” The sisters didn’t presume to ask Jesus to come to them, Judea being dangerous for Him, but they expected it.
They implored Jesus from afar: Heaven is a far-off place. He delays “two days”; the first being the “day” of the Patriarchs, Abraham, and the twelve Tribes; the second being the “day” of the Mosaic Law. Upon His arrival, Martha greets Him alone, reminiscent of the small company of Jewish shepherds who greeted Our Lord at His Nativity, and those few — Mary and Joseph, Zachary and Elizabeth, Anna and Simeon — who knew of His power during the hidden life at Nazareth. But as He draws nearer, it is Mary who greets Him, weeping, and bringing a crowd with her (Jn. 11:31 ). This crowd is the Gentile Church , the many from east and west who will come and recline at table with Abraham in the Kingdom of Heaven .
There are three resurrection miracles in the Gospels that prefigure the Resurrection of Christ. These are the resurrection of the daughter of Jairus (Lk. 8:41ff), of the son of the widow of Naim (Lk. 7:11 -15), and of Lazarus. In the first named miracle, the girl had just died when Our Lord resurrected her. The mourners were still in the house while she lay on her deathbed. In the second miracle, the raising of the son of the widow of Naim, the dead man was being carried in his funeral procession. The duration of his death-slumber was, therefore, longer than that of Jairus’ daughter. But Lazarus “had been four days already in the grave” as St. John tells us ( 11:17 ). He was already stinking. Now death being both caused by and metaphorical of sin, this slumbering trinity is often taken to represent the depths of sin into which we ungrateful creatures can fall. Lazarus was most certainly not such a sinner, because Jesus “loved” him, indicating the Divine Charity present in Lazarus’ soul. Still, he represents those whom St. Paul calls “dead in sins” (Eph. 2:5). The agony Our Lord showed, when He “groaned” and “troubled himself,” reminds us that it is by the suffering of the Man-God that those who are dead in sin are aroused to new life.
The resurrection of one so rotten, so dead in sins gives us hope for those whose conversions seem all but impossible. We can, Martha-and-Mary-like, petition Our Lord to raise them up by His divine power, because it will only be His “loud voice” that will call them to belief and amendment of life.
I will rise again.
Faith in the general resurrection, such Faith as all pious Jews had at the time, comes out in the conversation between Martha and Our Lord in verses 21-27: “Martha therefore said to Jesus: Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But now also I know that whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee. Jesus saith to her: Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith to him: I know that he shall rise again, in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus said to her: I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, although he be dead, shall live: And every one that liveth, and believeth in me, shall not die for ever. Believest thou this? She saith to him: Yea, Lord, I have believed that thou art Christ the Son of the living God, who art come into this world.”
Martha’s Jewish Faith, her Old Dispensation Faith, had to be completed here by Our Lord, Who teaches her something about the resurrection and further elicits from her an act of Faith in Himself as the Christ. Our Lord’s confident announcement of Lazarus’ imminent resurrection was met with a simple act of Jewish Faith from Martha. It is as if she had said, “of course, at the last day he will rise… we all know that. We’re not Sadducees!” But then the Divine Master teaches her something deeper: “I am the resurrection and the life…” To paraphrase: “My Resurrection is both the model and the cause of bodily resurrection. The resurrection to glory, at the last day, could not happen without my Resurrection, and in order to participate in that resurrection unto glory, people must believe in me and live in me — live in my Church, my Mystical Body. Now, do you believe this ?” And with her subsequent profession of Faith in Jesus’ being the Christ, Martha agreed to all Jesus had just said of Himself. Thus was her beautiful, but shadowy, Jewish Faith enlightened by the light of Him Who is Light.
St. Paul briefly affirmed the same truth: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again: even so them who have slept through Jesus, will God bring with him” ( 1 Thess: 4:13 ) .
Given the context of the conversation, we can read more into Jesus’ words to Martha. He is telling her that the resurrection at the last day is something He has control over. It belongs to Him; therefore, He can anticipate it by putting Lazarus’ body and soul together right then and there .
Now, each of us is that Lazarus. Each one of us is worm food. Each of us will hear a “loud voice” from Jesus on the last day — no, not His actual voice, but the trumpet blast that will arouse us all from our sleep: “ In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall rise again incorruptible. And we shall be changed” (I Cor. 15:52 ). Will we, like Lazarus, be resurrected unto glory, or shall we forfeit this by failing to believe in , or failing to live in Christ by sanctifying grace? This is the question for all of us: “I will rise again: Will I go to Heaven or will I go to Hell?” It is something that should, literally, scare the Hell out of all of us. And if anyone begrudges such hellfire and brimstone language, let him note that our Blessed Lady, the very embodiment of sweetness and spiritual beauty, showed three little shepherd children at Fatima a vision of Hell, a vision that changed the lives of all of them. Sister Lucy, in her nineties, still cannot hear mention of that vision without her joyful face taking on a grave countenance. That grace and mercy shown to the Fatima visionaries is a painful yet necessary remedy for the spiritual effeminacy and presumptuous vanity of our day. We need to recall that the gentle Good Shepherd, Who will feed his flock “in the most fruitful pastures” (Ez. 34:14), will also divide the sheep from the goats on the last day, telling the latter, “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41).
There is a Hell, and I can go there! I will die. My corpse will rot. And before it begins rotting, my soul will already be judged and serving its sentence. On the last day, whether or not I want it to, this same body I’m looking at right now will rise again to be rejoined to my soul, either to share in its torment, which will thereby increase, or to share in and add to its Heavenly bliss.
Have doubts? Not sure where you are? Turn to God promptly in prayer, examine your conscience, and go to confession .
O Jesus, he whom Thou lovest is sick! I am Lazarus sick unto death with sin; dying, and, if in mortal sin, dead in the tomb and spiritually putrefied. You suffered Your bitter Passion and died for me. By the merits of that Passion, give me Your grace that I may not go the way of those who hate You, but may perseveringly believe in You and live in You. Call me with Your loud voice and make me rise again. Grant that I may be with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha at the eternal banquet in Heaven, where all Your saints feast with You for ever and ever!
“I am the Resurrection.”
When Jesus came into the town, He met a grieving Mary Magdalene. Seeing her weeping and the Jews with her weeping, too, He “groaned in the spirit and troubled himself” ( 11:33 ). He well knew what caused this sorrowful scene: Satan and sin. “ Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death; and so death passed upon all men, in whom all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). Satan had tempted our first parents and, after their sin, the horrible consequences of spiritual separation from God and physical death were the result. Our Lord’s love for Lazarus caused Him to feel sadness. But His sadness was mixed with anger because of what — and who — did this. Though He truly felt these passions in His Soul (anger, dread, sorrow, etc.), in Christ, they were perfectly governed by intellect and will; the Man-God had complete mastery of His lower faculties. Thus, the Evangelist writes that He “troubled himself,” and not “He was troubled.” Still, His soul could be “sorrowful even unto death” (Mk 14:34 ), and His anger could manifest itself in eruptions of righteous indignation, as when twice He drove the crooked moneychangers out of the Temple (Jn. 2:14-16; Mt. 21:12-13).
Here at the tomb of His friend He both grieves and is angered.
As a testimony to His grief, Our Lord weeps at His friend’s tomb. It is the shortest verse in the Bible: “And Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:35 ). His tears, silent and dignified — for He did nothing which would appear beneath the dignity of the Incarnate Word — gave witness to those present of how much He loved Lazarus.
But there is more to the tears than that. Recall that the resurrection of Lazarus was a type of the resurrection of Man from sin and eventual damnation. In Bethany , before saving Lazarus, Jesus suffered . He underwent a “Passion in miniature,” prefiguring the horrors He was to undergo at the hands of the Jews in only a few short weeks. Like His “Lazarus Passion,” which was purely voluntary, and purely at the control of His higher faculties, Our Lord’s real Passion was undergone without constraint or necessity. For instance, while they were arresting Jesus in the Garden, the guards fell backwards on the ground at only a few words of His (Jn. 18:6). Further, His death was accomplished immediately after crying out “with a loud voice” (Mt. 27:50) — something the asphyxiated victims of crucifixion could never do — thus showing His utter mastery over life and death. He Himself had said, “…I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No man taketh it away from me: but I lay it down of myself. And I have power to lay it down: and I have power to take it up again” (Jn.10: 17-18).
His weeping finished, He again groaned in Himself and ordered the stone that covered the tomb to be rolled back. The stone literally stood between Lazarus and God. It therefore represents that thing that comes between God and us: sin. Jesus deputized others to move this obstacle, as He does in His Church, giving priests the power to remove the obstacle of sin from our souls.
After His suffering and His prayer of thanksgiving to His Father, Our Lord calls the dead man: Lazarus, come forth! “ And presently he that had been dead came forth, bound feet and hands with winding bands; and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus said to them: Loose him, and let him go” (Jn. 11:44 ). Again, after Himself effecting the resurrection, Jesus appoints others to take off those things that still bind Lazarus: another type of the priesthood.
Thus did our Savior prefigure His own Resurrection from a stone-covered tomb. Thus did He prefigure the resurrection of the sinner from spiritual death to life. Thus did He show the power of God which will, on the last day, raise us all to life again. Glory be to the Father who raised Him up, and to the Son, equal to the Father, Who with the Father raised Himself up, and to their co-eternal Spirit, now and forever, and for endless ages of ages!
The Heavenly Banquet
Those who rise again unto glory will enjoy a celestial banquet. Scripture sometimes refers to Heaven in terms of a banquet, or feast (e.g., Mt. 8:11; Lk. 14:16-24; Apoc. 19:9, 17). After Lazarus’ resurrection, we get a sneak preview of this banquet. Saint John begins Chapter Twelve with this: “Jesus therefore, six days before the pasch, came to Bethania, where Lazarus had been dead, whom Jesus raised to life. And they made him a supper there: and Martha served. But Lazarus was one of them that were at table with him. Mary therefore took a pound of ointment of right spikenard, of great price, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the odour of the ointment” (John 12:1-3).
Here we have God, in the Person of Our Lord, with His saints, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. At the feast, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet (and head, according the other evangelists). She does this with an exotic, expensive nard, or ointment, probably imported from India . It is estimated that the quantity named in the Gospel — an excessive quantity — was worth about one year’s wages. Even Mary’s use of it went beyond the customary, for while anointing the head was normal for a guest of honor, anointing the feet was not. The fragrance of the stuff filled the house, so that all could smell it. It is a type of the praise and adoration offered to God by His faithful. (The Old Testament sacrifices were often spoken of as “an odour of sweetness” to God — e.g., Lev. 6:15 , Num. 18:17 . St. Paul , having in mind this standard expression, refers to Our Lord’s Sacrifice on the Cross as “a sacrifice to God for an odour of sweetness” — Eph. 5:2. He calls the gifts the Philippians had sent to him by the exact same phrase — Phil. 4:18.)
One more detail is needed. Many commentators have reckoned that this supper in Bethany happened on the Sabbath. Now the Sabbath, the last day of the week, is a foreshadowing of the end of time. Heaven is the eternal Sabbath, the eternal rest we enter into with God.
So what have we? God, with His saints praising Him in a banquet on the Sabbath: a picture of Heaven!
1 All scriptural citations are from the Haydock edition of the Douay-Rheims Bible, whose style is rigidly retained, even where it differs from our normal style.