In Lazarus’ Tomb

Largely ignored by much of Christendom, the Orthodox celebrate “Lazarus Saturday” on the day before Palm Sunday. It is something of a “prequel” to the next weekend’s Pascha. It is, indeed a little Pascha just before the greater one. And this, of course, was arranged by Christ Himself, who raised His friend Lazarus from the dead as something of a last action before entering Jerusalem and beginning His slow ascent to Golgotha through the days of Holy Week. The Orthodox celebrate Pascha a week later than Western Christians this year – thus Lazarus Saturday is this weekend.

One of the hymns of the Vigil of Lazarus Saturday says that Christ “stole him from among the dead.” I rather like the phrase. At Pascha there will be no stealing, but a blasting of the gates of hell itself. What he does for Lazarus he will do for all.

Lazarus, of course, is different from those previously raised from the dead by Christ (such as the daughter of Jairus). Lazarus had been four days dead and corruption of the body had already set in. “My Lord, he stinks!” one of his sisters explained when Christ requested to be shown to the tomb.

I sat in that tomb in September of 2008. It is not particularly notable as a shrine. It is, today, in the possession of a private, Muslim family. You pay to get in.

Lazarus is an important character in 19th century Russian literature. Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment, finds the beginning of his repentance of the crime of murder, by listening to a reading of the story of Lazarus. It is, for many, and properly so, a reminder of the universal resurrection. What Christ has done for Lazarus He will do for all.

For me, he is also a sign of the universal entombment. Even before we die, we have frequently begun to inhabit our tombs. We live our life with the doors closed (and we stink). Our hearts can be places of corruption and not the habitation of the good God. Or, at best, we ask Him to visit us as He visited Lazarus. That visit brought tears to the eyes of Christ. The state of our corruption makes Him weep. It is such a contradiction to the will of God. We were not created for the tomb.

I also note that in the story of Lazarus – even in his being raised from the dead – he rises in weakness. He remains bound by his graveclothes. Someone must “unbind” him. We ourselves, having been plunged into the waters of Baptism and robed with the righteousness of Christ, too often exchange those glorious robes for graveclothes. Christ has made us alive, be we remain bound like dead men.

I sat in the tomb of Lazarus because it seemed so familiar.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





22 responses to “In Lazarus’ Tomb”

  1. […] — Orthodox Christianity var pulltime = 'Thu, 05 Apr 2012 14:28:16 +0000';1) In Lazarus’ Tomb fatherstephen on Thursday, Apr 5th […]

  2. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen,

    A post that is in the category of quiet contemplation rather than lively debate. A post that reminds me of the well-worn saying that we were given 2 ears and only 1 mouth so we could listen twice as much.

    That tomb and stench is familiar to me as well. Dear God how I do long to be called forth!

    And how He does call me……and how I often choose to remain in the putrid dark because I have become so used to it and prefer the death I know to the light that hurts me.

    Lord have mercy….

  3. coffeezombie Avatar

    “Christ has made us alive, be we remain bound like dead men.”

    In a way, this makes me think of one of the pre-Communion prayers:

    “How shall I, who am unworthy, enter into the splendor of Thy saints? For if I dare to enter the bridal chamber my garments will betray me, for they are not wedding garments, and I shall be bound and cast out by the angels. Cleanse, O Lord, my unclean soul, and save me, as the Lover of Mankind!”

    How strange, going to a wedding in graveclothes.

  4. alyssasophia Avatar

    I don’t even know what to say to this, except it’s both beautiful and a bit haunting. Thank you, Father.

  5. Andrew Avatar

    Was not our Lord also wearing graveclothes when he was raised?

  6. Juliana Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,
    This post IS haunting, much like a post you wrote a couple years ago which haunts me still. Now I am noticing that they are not unrelated. And in this sad reality is the icon of my heart. Indeed, may God call us out – of the tomb and the belly of the whale.

    “We must not become too comfortable in the belly of the whale. We were not meant to live here. At least the prophet Jonah knew that. We must not seek to make God a part of our hellish reality – reducing Him to mere virtuality. (I think here of the Church in Kentucky that implemented “drive through communion” a few years back).

    Neither should we seek to make Church “easier” or more conformed to the age. We’re in the belly of a whale. What we need is to be spewed up onto the land, and not a program for the improvement of whale bellies.”

  7. George Avatar
  8. simmmo Avatar

    Wonderful post as usual Father!

  9. Mimi Avatar

    Thank you, Father.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    The noble Joseph, when he had taken down Thy most pure body from the tree, wrapped it in fine linen, anointed it with spices and placed it in his own new tomb. However, Christ seems to have left the fine linen behind (could be in Turin). The clothes He wears in the resurrection, never described that I can remember, seem to be new. No graveclothes! Glory be!

  11. Valja Avatar

    Thank you for this post, Father. We are to be received by Chrismation this coming Lazarus Saturday (tomorrow, at least in my time zone). I will have to make my first confession in another language — we are Americans living abroad and our priest only speaks Russian and the local language — (it will be a short, stumbling confession, I’m afraid, even though I’ll write something out) but I trust God will know my heart. You have reminded me of some things I have not been especially conscious of, but will add to my confession. (My husband speaks Russian, so the whole thing is somewhat less complicated for him).

    We would be grateful for your prayers, as well as those of our fellow readers.

  12. Karen Avatar

    It appears that linen is likely not in Turin after all:

    (Several years ago I read a couple of books in support of the Shroud’s authenticity, which data and theories are pretty much debunked in these posts.)

  13. Andrew Avatar

    Indeed Father, finer rainment was there ne’er seen!

  14. OldToad Avatar

    To Valja and her Russian-speaking husband: Welcome! And please pray for us.

  15. Maximus Avatar


    Thank you for this meditation on Lazarus Saturday. My family and I are to be illumined by Holy Baptism tomorrow morning. I just wanted to let you know that I am one among the many for whom your blog has proved a great resource as I have made the journey to Orthodoxy. I remain very thankful for your work here.


  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    Orthodox thought on the shroud varies. A number of very holy men and women have held it to be authentic. Others have questions or doubts. The arguments for its origin in the Middle East are of interest to me.

    As for the articles. I do not think the scientific evidence viz. documents from the Western middle ages are of use. There is far too many problems that surround such matters for them to be treated as reliable one way or the other. The record of people lying for all kinds of reasons (including Cardinals, et al) is simply rife during that period. I would trust none of them.
    As for the second article, which is slightly disrespectful it seems to me, I tried the test (hands placement) and found that my hands and arms do just fine in the matter in question. Second, if the shroud is real, then the individual in it had just hung on a cross for more than 3 hours, and would have arms out of joint (and slightly longer than normal) removing the accuracy of the objections in any case. As for their placement, yes, they would have been placed in a discreet manner because that is Jewish piety.
    The C-14 data has famous debates surrounding it to which I could add nothing other than to say that many remain unconvinced by it and not unreasonably. The article’s contention that “any reasonable or objective or scientific” examination could only reach one conclusion is simply not true. Thus, I didn’t see anything new in the articles.
    My piety (which is not terribly concerned with science) would venerate the shroud. If it’s not The Shroud, then it’s a very good icon. The “negative” photographic effect seems, to me, to argue against the forgery thing (unless it’s the kind of forgery that would have seemed odd during the proposed period). The image of Christ on cloth was well-known in the East long before the purported time of the forgery.
    May you and I and we all be transformed into the true image of Christ our God!

  17. Karen Avatar

    Thanks, Father. I’m not sure if you had the opportunity to read the linked articles (I really should have posted those links, not just John’s posts, since that was the evidence that was on my mind.) I actually agree with you about the hand position issue.

    I’m not adequately trained scientifically to make any kind of authoritative judgment on this, obviously, but what stuck out to me (if true) among other things were the issues with the pollen samples, the size of the cranium, and the 3-D effect consistent with a rubbing from a bas relief image (not true photographic) which was asserted to be typical of the art of the Medieval period. As I said, though, this evidence and more was detailed in the linked articles (one by an artist and another by a non-believer scientist), not in John’s posts. I found the evidence in the articles John linked to convincing as to its being a Medieval Icon/forgery, not the real article. (Here are the linked articles I read: Of course, that someone attempts a forgery (or makes a reproduction) lends credence to the prior existence of an original real object.

    I’m learning that “very holy” with regard to disposition doesn’t mean infallible with regard to knowledge of facts (see this article also:, although I agree it is good to err on the side of reverence, and for us moderns this is not our predisposition! I have in mind the story told by the Fathers of the simple monk who was very devoted to “St. Ascension” (mistaking what was actually a Feast Day for a Saint’s Day). His fellow monks ridiculed him, but God honored his love and prayers to this beloved “Saint” with a miracle. A fault in the heart’s predisposition is a serious spiritual impediment, while a mistaken understanding of fact is not. It’s also true that an uncritical faith in human science (far more common in our age) can just as easily mislead and potentially in much more spiritually damaging ways. Your point is well-taken also that regardless of its authenticity as a 1st century relic, the Image on the Shroud is still an Icon and should be reverenced as such.

  18. cranberry1 Avatar

    Hello Father,

    Thanks for your inspiring blog! I am an Orthodox Christian from Greece. I am very touched to read everything about Orthodoxy outside my country. Thank you for strengthen the faith of Orthodox Christians with your blog.

    God bless you always and have a blessed Holy Week!

  19. Peter McGurrin Avatar
    Peter McGurrin

    Many great insights are being made here. There are a few other interesting points on Lazarus Saturday, which is a foreshadowing of the general resurrection a week later that is pointed to by the specific; the resurrection of Lazarus. Lazarus was a friend of Jesus. So, what was the response? ‘Jesus wept’ at the sight of his condition. (notice the intimacy of the relationship) Jesus (second person of the trinity) is the lover of mankind! The theological content here is staggering; what he did for his friend Lazarus, he will do for all. Also, Lazarus Saturday and Holy Saturday are the only Saturdays on the Church calendar where the resurrection hymns are sung. Truly one points to the other.
    At vespers on Friday before Lazarus Saturday lent comes to an end and we cease from our works. Consequently, on Lazarus Saturday we are in our graves. We are in our graves during Holy week. As St. Isaac said, it is only in our graves that will fulfill the commandments! At the end of Christ’s passion he says ‘It is finished”. He ceases from his works and he is in his grave. Oh, strange wonder, he transfigures that once and always! (it’s an eternal event) Truly, everyone that has this hope purifies himself, just as he is pure. We partake of his resurrection! Glory forever!

  20. Peter (@peteoffire) Avatar

    If you don’t mind, I have translated this post to Arabic and plan to hand it out during service in my church (a Coptic Orthodox church in Egypt) during the Holy Week, crediting it back to here of course.
    Please let me know if you do not approve for any reason.
    and thank you for sharing this with us, it’s wonderful to read such warm meditations in these times 🙂

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you very much! May God protect your parish and bless all of you in this holy season!

  22. The Pilgrim Avatar
    The Pilgrim

    Karen, I have only been Orthodoxfor twelve or so years now, but one thing has been brought home to me very strongly, and that is that “reason” and “logic” are very poor lenses through which to view the capacities of our God.

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