Our fellow Christians, the Orthodox (the Christians of Russia, Greece, and the East), make much ado of this Gospel. On the Saturday before their Palm Sunday, they reënact Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus from the tomb, and in some churches they have someone wrapped in strips of cloth who comes forward, taking the part of Lazarus. The Orthodox keep “Lazarus Saturday” (before Palm Sunday) because the raising of Lazarus is the last sign Jesus performs before his glorification in Jerusalem.
What is a “sign” as we hear of them in the Scriptures? A sign is an act of God which reveals God’s love and mercy. A sign indicates (points to) something larger than itself, something rather mysterious about God’s love for us. The raising of Lazarus is the last and greatest sign Jesus performs before he is crucified and raised from the dead himself. In other words, the raising of Lazarus from the dead points to Jesus’ own resurrection, and the raising of Lazarus is the last and greatest sign because it most closely resembles Jesus’ resurrection—resembles Jesus’ own resurrection more closely than the other signs (like giving sight to the Blind Man) do.
To get at what this sign means to us, we need to look back at the Gospel when Martha says to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (St Jn 11:21). Martha believes Jesus could have prevented her brother’s death, but she doubts whether he is able to raise him. To this Jesus answers and gives the interpretive clue for the sign which follows: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (St Jn 11:25-26).
What Jesus is saying and what he is demonstrating by raising Lazarus is that the real transition from life to death is the turning away from Jesus (the Word made flesh to bring divine life to all whom God has made). It follows that the real transition to life is precisely the opposite. The real transition to life is turning to Jesus (the Word made flesh to bring divine life to all whom God has made).
Many of you, I know, will find this very hard. But Jesus the Resurrection is the core of our belief as Christians. If our understanding should run thin, and at times it does, even in the best of us, let our faith begin. Let our trust in God begin where our reason runs out. For the God we worship is an active, loving, and almighty God, as we profess over and over in our services. Let us look toward Palm Sunday and Easter with a focus. Let us look to celebrate the glory of God as if God spoke to each of us when Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go” (St Jn 11:44).