Today’s gospel is John 11:1-45, the Raising of Lazarus, quite a story, that the evangelist tells as the ultimate sign of his christology and also the final straw for Jesus’ adversaries who want to execute him. The story is great for preaching, I reckon, myself having done a couple dozen times and intending never again; and for teaching, discussing in a Bible study class or Sunday School, as we shall do this morning. In either case, preach or teach, there are all sorts of places to go with it.
What intrigues me this morning though has been browsing online through various images of Christian art on the subject. Dozens, scores, hundreds maybe, of artists’ conceptions of the story’s event over the centuries. In some, onlookers hold a hand over their nose against the stench. Some show Lazarus emerging from a cave, some from a cemetery grave. My favorite, just on the glance, may be a modern painting from a Methodist collection in England (above). One, used by Barbara Crafton in this morning’s “Geranium Farm,” has a coffin lid in the foreground that brought to mind other things.
As a survivor at long distance of World War 2 and the German Holocaust, and with long memory, I’ve read any number of books and watched related films, including “Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” and writings of Simon Wiesenthal and Eli Wiesel over the years. And there are videos online of executions during and following World War 2, of German spies, German war criminals, collaborators. Seeing the coffin lid beside Lazarus, it has struck me that commonly at hangings or firing squads, there are wooden coffins laid by in plain sight, waiting for their corpse, that the condemned can’t help but notice while being led up the gallows steps or out to the post to be bound. Justice aside, seeing the box, among other distractions and foci, what might a condemned one feel in the final minutes, moments, of life, knowing for absolute certain that it is about to be taken and one will no longer be. And the risen Lazarus seeing his coffin lid … relief for now, perhaps. But also, Lazarus, come tell us your experiences, where were you? what do you remember? who did you know? was there peace, terror, or oblivion, nothing? And, Lazatus: remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return: what is there to fear?