Good Zeal

Unbinding Lazarus

Brian Whalen's Raising of LazarusI’ve been mesmerized by Brian Whelan’s painting, “Raising of Lazarus,” with his imaginative rendering of the gospel story from the eleventh chapter of John. All last week, I meditated on this painting and the gospel text which still have not let me go! Now that we are in Holy Week, I see how it has been preparing me for Easter.

Toward the end of that story, Jesus is standing outside the tomb of his beloved friend, Lazarus, who has been dead for 4 days. Mary and Martha are there, along with all the other mourners who followed them to the tomb. When Jesus tells them to remove the stone, they hesitate, anticipating the stench of decay. Nevertheless, they comply after he encourages their faith. Jesus shouts a command to Lazarus to come out. Lazarus comes out of the tomb, still wrapped in all the cloth burial bands.

Jesus says to the gathered mourners who have just witnessed a miracle of restored life, “Unbind him and let him go.” This is where I engage Brian Whelan’s painting. One man from the crowd of mourners busily unwinds the bands of burial cloths binding Lazarus. He stares with amazement and disbelief into Lazarus’ open eyes. I can’t help but laugh at the other man, his eyes wide, clutching the tomb cover with one hand, and a handkerchief in the other hand, covering his nose and mouth. How like he am I, incredulous, prepared for the worst!

It took a few days of meditating on this painting before I noticed that even the trees in the far background respond to Jesus’ command to life. The tree furthest from Jesus has no leaves. The closer the trees to Jesus, the more leaves appear. The closest tree has colorful autumn leaves on the first half turning to bright green leaves on the other half.

As I pondered this gospel story, it struck me that instead of Jesus unbinding Lazarus, he told the people to do it. “Unbind him and let him go.” What if those mourners gathered around the tomb represent you and me, and in fact, the whole church? What if Lazarus represents our neighbors caught in the life destroying, dehumanizing grip of poverty, prejudice, hopelessness, oppression, trauma, or another dilemma? What if Lazarus represents you and me, unable to unbind ourselves, needing the love and help of others? What if Jesus is calling his church to work together to unbind every tight constraint that diminishes the dignity and divine flame within his beloved children?

I can’t help but recall the prophecy from the book of Isaiah that Jesus applies to himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) [underlining my own]
By the way, the Hebrew meaning of the name Lazarus is “God will help.” How did God help Lazarus? He sent Jesus. And now, Jesus sends his Church, you and me. While we mourn all that is destructive and life crushing in our world, we can be agents of change as we respond to Jesus’ command, “Unbind him and let him go.”

That process of becoming unbound and free is what St. Benedict envisioned for those who commit to love one another, guided by the Rule and the light of the Gospel. As with Lazarus, the power of Christ’s love to set us free can be experienced through our monastic community’s prayer, patience, peace, kindness, gentleness, generosity, faithfulness, discipline, mercy, and joy.

During Holy Week, we will journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, commune with him at the Last Supper, pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane, agonize at his torture, suffering and death, weep and mourn with his mother and disciples, see his body prepared for burial and the tomb sealed shut with a stone. Then we will be surprised by our surprise again on Easter morning when the stone is found rolled away, we peer into the empty tomb, and see the burial cloths left behind – for our heavenly Father has unbound him and set him free!

By Sister Sara Aiden Burress, OSB

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