The Strange Case of Lazarus

Lazarus,_Russian_iconSt. John’s Gospel records the story of Christ’s raising Lazarus from the dead as the last action of Christ before His entry into Jerusalem. That setting has given rise to the feast of Lazarus Saturday in the Orthodox Church – a small Pascha before Holy Week.

The three synoptic gospels make no mention of these events, to which I draw no historical conclusions. The gospels include and exclude events for many reasons, historical considerations seeming to be of the least importance. Which stories, and in what order, primarily serve deeper theological concerns.

For St. John, the story of Lazarus serves as the occasion for commentary and teaching on the resurrection of believers, much like the Feeding of the Five Thousand serves for commentary and teaching on the Eucharist.

“If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” (Martha’s words) echoes the universal voice of the Church in the face of Christ’s delayed Second Coming. It is the plaintive heart of believers who wonder why God allows suffering.

And some of them said, “Could not this Man, who opened the eyes of the blind, also have kept this man from dying?” (Joh 11:37)

It is an obvious question, repeated in various forms by believers as well as scoffers through the centuries. The story of Lazarus, which occurs before Christ’s suffering and death, specifically addresses the heart of the Church after Christ’s suffering and death. For though we rejoice in Christ’s death and resurrection, it is our dead brother (mother, father, sister, friend) who lies heavy on our hearts.

“Your brother will rise again.” These words of Christ, like a statement of Church doctrine, bring little comfort to someone stuck in their grief. It is Christ’s affirmation, “I am the resurrection and the life,” that sums up the encounter. The people do not understand, not even when Lazarus is raised from the dead. That Christ Himself is the resurrection and the life does not become clear until His own resurrection.

Christ says elsewhere in John’s gospel: “For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself,” (Joh 5:26). But none of this is remembered until after Christ Himself is raised.

And the resurrection of Christ is not like the resurrection of Lazarus: Lazarus dies again, later. Tradition holds that he became the bishop of Cyprus and was buried there (his tomb can still be seen in Larnaca).

We all stand like Mary and Martha of Bethany, mourning brothers and others whom we have lost. And the resurrection of Christ too easily passes into dry doctrine, “My brother will rise at the last day.” The resurrection of Christ, as historical event, easily begins to lose its existential importance: “I am the resurrection.”

It is an interesting phrase, “I am the resurrection.” This is not at all the same thing as saying, “I will be raised from the dead,” or “I will raise your brother from the dead.” For both of those statements turn an existential matter into a simple statement of fact. And though facts may be true, they are often simply inaccessible. That Paris is the capital of France is a fact – but it means nothing to me – I’ve never been there and have no plans to go.

The resurrection is more than fact, it is a person. And as a person, it may be known and existentially encountered. And it is this that lies at the heart of Pascha. For it is not the risen Lord of history, lost to us among the many facts, that we proclaim and celebrate. It is the Christ, Who is the Resurrection, present in our midst, united with us, daily trampling down death by death, the Jesus Whom we know that we greet with joy.

The Church does not shout, “Christ rose from the dead! Fact! Fact! Fact!” It shouts, “Christ is risen from the dead! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Lazarus was raised from the dead. Christ is risen from the dead. The difference is everything. Our hope is not in being resuscitated to our present form, but a true transformation into the life of resurrection.

There is an ancient story told about Lazarus in his years following his being raised. It was said that he never smiled – such was the sobering effect of what he had seen in Hades. However, it is said that he laughed – once. A man was angry and smashed a pot. Lazarus laughed and said, “The clay smashes the clay.”

Lazarus was not in love with our life as clay. He knew the Resurrection and longed for a true and final victory. His first encounter with Hades, the fact of his being raised when he had been four-days-dead, is not the victory itself – but the foreshadowing of something far greater which is to come. Lazarus Saturday reminds us of a greater Saturday and of a dawn that shatters all dawns.

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1Jo 3:2)

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.



30 responses to “The Strange Case of Lazarus”

  1. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I think it galls us that we ourselves are not the Resurrection. How we long to be the source of life for everyone around us! How we struggle with dying so that He can live within us! This is so difficult to do – and it never seems possible to do it with our whole hearts.

    What is in us that caused us to pull away from our God in the Garden? Why did we immediately want to ourselves up on the throne instead? You would think our first instinct would be contentment with what we are – His children.

    I guess…perhaps the answer lies in the scripture verse you ended with. God have mercy!

  2. Prometheus Avatar

    I really enjoyed this, but am not sure that your emphasis on “is risen” over “rose” is accurate liturgically speaking (I mean to quote the original languages). First of all, the Greek is Χριστὸς ἀνέστη “Christ rose,” the aorist tense as opposed to the perfect. The English adds an element that is not clearly specified in the Greek. That said, it is hard to imagine that the emphasis is an Orthodox emphasis (at least not grammatically/liturgically, though perhaps theologically) so much as one that popped up in English in archaic translations. But I would be curious to see how it is done in Russian and Orthodox liturgies in other languages such as Aramaic, etc.

  3. h west Avatar

    thank you, Fr. Stephen. and thank you, Drewster2000 for the reminder!

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Prometheus, The aorist is not necessarily the same thing as “past.” Indeed, the aorist is about the only way to render the English notion of “is risen.” If you used the present tense, it would mean “is rising” or “rises.” If you used the perfect, it would mean, “has risen.” But even the angel uses the aorist – which is best translated “is risen” It’s sort of a “snapshot” use of the aorist, describing an event that is, though completed.

    I think the language noted is accurate.

  5. Dino Avatar

    There is sweet fire in the words of this article…

    I have to agree with the English rendering as the most correct in this case Prometheus, despite arguments to the contrary, if we read through the Pashal cannon it becomes evident that it is perfectly congruent with “is risen”- as are Christ’s words of course: “I am the resurrection and the life”.

    I think that we do celebrate Pascha every year, but blessed are those who attain that other, everlasting Pascha, the Pascha of eternal bliss. Ofcourse, Pascha might be indeed translated as ‘passage’ from slavery to freedom, from death unto life, but, it is also understood and lived as ‘communion’ – of things seen with things not seen, of created and Uncreated.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    You always have the definitive word here on Greek. Thanks.

  7. Prometheus Avatar

    Well, I don’t know how useful it is to dispute and I don’t know your familiarity with Greek, but Greek and Latin are my expertise and profession. The Aorist is decidedly not a “snapshot” but rather “undefined.” The Perfect is not like the English perfect, though “has risen” and “is risen” historically have the same origin in the Germanic languages as one another. In Greek, on the other hand, the perfect generally expresses the Present result of a past action. For example, the Greek perfect τέθνηκα means “I am dead” (“I have died”) and the aorist ἀπέθανον “I died.” The perfect is used when it focuses on the present truth and the aorist when the past action is in view. So in fact, the aorist is “he rose” without specific present implications (though context can always modify the aorist), but the perfect has present implications “he rose and is alive” or “he is risen.” So the special theology of “is risen” is in the English translation of the aorist not in the aorist itself.

    That said, both the aorist and the perfect can be translated with the English perfect, which demonstrates that the overlap is not complete between the two languages. Furthermore, the study of the grammatical category of aspect in Biblical Greek leaves a lot to be resolved as to the actual significance of the so-called tenses. Constantine’s recent monographs on the issue have some odd things to say about the perfect and pluperfect tenses of which I am not convinced, but much of his writing is useful. See also Fanning, Porter, McKay, and Wallace and their understandings of Greek aspect.

  8. Prometheus Avatar


    I am not arguing that it is not congruent (i.e. it is not in disagreement with). What I am arguing is that you CANNOT from the Greek tense get to the English tense (i.e. though it is congruent, the grammar cannot support such an argument). You would only be able to do so from biblical/liturgical context.

    I think that accuracy in argument, not just conclusion is extremely important. I see a lot of sloppiness in academic articles and a lot of perpetuating of false understandings of language as someone who spends most of my time in other languages. I just thought it pertinent to mention that while the conclusion was right, the manner of getting there (through the grammar of the scriptures and liturgy) is not.

    But again, I realize that such discussion isn’t always fruitful. I’m sorry if what I have said detracts from the overall post.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m a classicist (my college degree) and I’ve read the Greek Bible since the early 70’s. Dino, of course, is Greek, reading both the classical/patristic as well as speaking the language. I often appreciate his “ear” that is almost always missing in our academic experience. The rich life of liturgical Greek is also missing from much of our experience.

    That said, I take your point.

    Thus, I will plead the preacher’s license. There are reasons (theological) for the English choice for rendering the text. But I will cede that I could not make the point from Greek grammar alone.

    I appreciate your sharing.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course, all of the various grammar book takes on the meaning of things, like the aorist, are always context derived. I think of something like Smyth’s standard grammar – all of the various described meanings and uses of tense (aspect), are context derived. Thus, the use of the aorist in Christos Anesti – in the Paschal Canon the force of everything is “today.” “This is the day of resurrection,” etc.

    Interestingly, Archm.Ephrem Lash, the British translator, renders the Greek, “Christ has risen from the dead.” There’s no accounting for the things the British do to the English language.

  11. Prometheus Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for your gracious reply.

  12. […] we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1Jo 3:2) The Strange Case of Lazarus*|*Glory to God for All Things __________________ All quotes are from the Alcoholics Anonymous.1st Edition We are not at peace […]

  13. davidp Avatar

    Perhaps, the Strange Case of Lazarus can be partially answered in this book, for those who wish to tackle it, Journey Out Of Time, by Arthur Custance. It deals with the concept of time, our place in the physcial world and for christian believers, their spiritual participation.

    To understand the variables in the concept of time, one must read the first-five chapters in Part 1, because I am linking you to the second Part:

    This is heavy reading so it may be not for all of you to read.

    Blessings. david

  14. Dino Avatar

    Thank you Father, though being born and bred Greek does not make me an erudite expert at all…

    I see your point regarding the scholastically correct translation Prometheus, but I cannot ignore – even if I try to – the (how do i put it?), ‘continuous’ (?) , ‘mixing up past, present and future’ (?) perception of the resurrection as seen in the Paschal cannon for example.

    “Come, let us drink a new drink […] in Whom we are established.”
    “Grant that we may more perfectly partake of Thee in the day that has no evening of your Kingdom.!”
    “You have truly promised that you will be with us unto the end of time, O Christ”
    “we shall clearly hear him saying ‘Rejoice!’”
    “Now all things have been filled with light, both heaven and earth and those beneath the earth; so let all creation sing Christ’s rising, by which it is established.”

    “Yesterday I was buried with you O Christ, today I rise with you as you arise. Yesterday I was crucified with you; glorify me with you, Saviour, in your Kingdom”

    I can bring numerous such beautiful examples – but assume you already now these intimately… Arguing (admittedly accurately) that one cannot get to the English tense from the Greek tense n this particular case (as you say: though it is congruent theologically, the grammar cannot support such an argument outside biblical/liturgical context) seems to me valid from that perspective on the one hand, but to voluntarily ignore this particular argument on the other hand, (on theological grounds), certainly seems perceptively profound rather than “sloppy” in any way.

  15. Prometheus Avatar


    I think you miss understand my “scholasticism.” I was, in fact, arguing against perceived scholasticism in Fr. Stephen’s argument about “is risen” vs. “rose”. Theologically we can emphasize “is risen”. But to argue that the Orthodox insist “is risen” not “rose” from something like “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” (Χριστὸς ἀνέστη; ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη). That argument (even if the Greek in a particular area were the perfect tense) seems to me an overemphasis on distinctions that I hear all to often in Orthodox circles in condemnation of the West. And yet the Orthodox are not free from such (scholastic) distinctions themselves. Why not say we emphasize both! Christ has risen! Christ is alive (i.e. is risen)! So I would agree that on theological grounds it is profound to note that Christ is the resurrection and is risen. But to emphasize the grammar in order to make the argument is sloppy. And to do so to the seeming denial of other ways of expressing the truth (i.e. Christ rose / Christ has risen) can seem like needlessly picking a fight (i.e. only when you say Christ is risen are you truly Orthodox). [If you think I’m exaggerating, let me quote from Fr. Stephen’s post: “The Church does not shout, “Christ rose from the dead! Fact! Fact! Fact!” It shouts, “Christ is risen from the dead! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!””]

  16. […] The Strange Case for Lazarus by Fr. Stephen Freeman […]

  17. Drewster2000 Avatar

    It’s all Greek to me…

    I take Fr. Stephen’s original point. As Western types we are too easily driven by chronological events rather than learning to live in the eternity of “now”. Lazarus was risen from the dead but Christ is in such a way that it ripples out to the whole of reality and in turn means that I am being and will be risen as well – and THIS is the Good News.

    I’m not sure what the Greek said, but I know what is.

  18. Dino Avatar

    It is pretty obvious from Father’s statement “The Church does not shout, “Christ rose from the dead! Fact! Fact! Fact!” It shouts, “Christ is risen from the dead! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”” that his emphasis is on ‘the spirit that vivifies’ rather than the letter that kills. Of course, as you correctly state, the argument might be better based on other than the grammar, besides, there is much other to base it on. But, reading the article again, does not seem to me to be bringing grammar into support of the key, profound point being made at all, it is speaking that very word that the Church ‘shouts’ – and does this in a very different sense to what this argument in the comments on accurate translation implies. I know of a great many instances of similar, “inaccuracies” in the patristic body, but, metaphorically speaking, we cannot heed that sort of “attention on the tree” (the shrub even) and miss “the forest”.
    There is of course no implication that “only when you say Christ is risen are you truly Orthodox” either.
    So, as you said “Why not say we emphasize both!” is perfectly good.


  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    Pace! Dino said it pretty well. In the article itself, my argument is not from a grammatical point (though I see how someone could think that). I’m sorry that I introduced grammatical conversation in the comments.

    But, as Dino noted, It’s the “fact, fact, fact” that is my point. It is the treatment of the resurrection as a mere historical artifact, rather than a transcending Reality that captivates all reality (including time).

    The liturgical celebration of Christ’s Pascha is decidedly present tense – in a liturgical now. This runs throughout every liturgy, and especially through Pascha.

    Truth, told, the Western liturgies with which I’m familiar (Anglican and Roman) do the same thing. The Exultet hymn used by both is very powerfully present tense.

    “This is the night when you delivered our fathers from the Red Sea, etc.”

    Sorry if any of this has produced consternation. May Christ rise in our grammar.

  20. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Frankly, whatever the grammar in English or Greek or Russian or Arabic all that matters is that Christ is Risen!

    All that matters it the we let go of our rationalistic mind sufficiently to enter into the reality of His Resurrection so that it can become one’s own.

  21. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Languages (all of them) will always be inadequate to express the truth of Christ as Resurrection.

    We human beings tend to conceive of life as a linear history, with a past, present and a future – because that is how we experience it in our current state.

    But certainly we who believe do not limit our vision of God to this same level. The great saints who drew very close to God in this lifetime were able to know things that had not happened yet in time. How could this be if “our time” is all that there is?

    (Also others, not known to be saints, from a variety of cultures and religions, have had similar glimpses of time in which past, present, future as we know them are all one – as in near death experiences, pre-cognition, etc. For reasons known only to God, humanity is given these more secular glimpses into a knowledge that all is not as it appears in our linear day-to-day existence.)

    Thus, your point, Fr. Stephen, is very well made. Part of the “modern project” is that our most holy days (Pascha, Christmas) become reduced to cultural holidays – as if all we are doing is commemorating some nice PAST event. Resurrection as past event is meaningless – as demonstrated by the contrast between the raising of Lazarus and Jesus as Resurrection itself.

    Our suffering over death, whether that of those we love or the anticipation of our own, is because we linger in time, perceiving Resurrection as either a past (historical) event or a future event to be awaited. Our salvation from this anguish comes from faith in Resurrection as an eternal NOW event – or rather, as eternal Person. As we unite our hearts to His, there is no moment, no experience that is not Resurrection.

    I intend no criticism of the faith of those who are grieving painfully – it is only through the grace of God that we are able to see beyond our human state. (I am only able to see beyond it hypothetically. When it is my loss, I will cry my heart out as much as anyone else.) The tears Jesus shed for Lazarus are a great comfort to us as they reflect His compassion for our state, even as He was about lead us to transcend it.

  22. Rd Andrew Avatar

    We can debate the proper way of translating language, but it’s important to not forget the power of this event. These poetic words are timeless.
    Selections from the Canon of Lazarus, as part of the Small Compline that was done tonight:

    “Glory to Thee, our God; glory to Thee.
    Calling Lazarus by name, Thou hast broken in pieces the bars of Hell and shaken the power of the enemy; and before Thy Crucifixion, Thou hast made him tremble because of Thee, O only Savior.

    Glory to Thee, our God; glory to Thee.
    Shedding tears for Thy friend, O Savior, Thou hast shown the reality of Thine Incarnation: the flesh that Thou hast taken from us was united to Thee in essence, not in appearance only. And, since Thou art a God Who lovest mankind, immediately Thou hast called him and raised him up.

    Glory to Thee, our God; glory to Thee.
    Woe is me! Now am I destroyed utterly, Hell cried out, and thus he spoke to Death: See, the man from Nazareth has shaken the lower world, and cutting open my belly he has called a lifeless corpse and raised it up.

    Glory to Thee, our God; glory to Thee.
    Wishing in Thy love to reveal the meaning of Thy Passion and Thy Cross, Thou hast broken open the belly of Hell that never can be satisfied, and as God Thou hast raised up a man four days dead.

    Glory to Thee, our God; glory to Thee.
    Hell, that had received so many, was unable to resist Thy sovereign command, O Jesus; but trembling, it surrendered Lazarus, four days dead, yet brought up to life by Thy voice.

    Glory to Thee, our God; glory to Thee.
    When Lazarus, four days dead, heard Thy voice below, O Savior, he rose up and sang Thy praises, crying aloud joyfully: Thou art my God and Maker; I glorify and worship Thee, for Thou hast raised me up.

    Glory to Thee, our God; glory to Thee.
    I implore thee, Lazarus, said Hell, Rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone. It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of all those whom I swallowed in my hunger.”

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    And speaking of Lazarus, later this morning I will Baptize 4 and Chrismate 5 as we receive new members into the Church. Lazarus indeed!

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Glory to God. To me after the Divine Liturgy there are 3 celebrations in the Church that provide great witness: Baptism/Chrismation; the Churching of a mother and her new baby; funerals.

    Each in its own unique way shows the reality of the Incarnation and Ressurection.

  25. Karen Avatar

    This morning my husband, daughter and I attended the memorial service at my husband’s Evangelical church of a true servant of God who finished his race well. As I listened to the testimony of his believing children and grandchildren (he was a great-grandpa), I couldn’t help but be reminded, Father, of your own words about your father-in-law on this blog. If I can finish my race even a fraction so well, I will be happy. In his last few months dementia set in, but he recovered his memory and capabilities always whenever he prayed. His pastor chose to issue the eulogy and message from the story of Christ’s raising of Lazarus! I may have been the only one present who realized how truly appropriate this text was and what an Orthodox affirmation it was of the hope in Christ exemplified in the life of this dear friend of God.

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Memory eternal

  27. davidp Avatar

    Fr Thomas Hopko has a good podcast on Lazarus Saturday here:

    Only 19 min.

    Blessings, david.

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    We begin Holy Week by celebrating Bride Groom Matins on Sunday evening. Sublime. The Bridegroom hymn is my favorite period.

    Blessed Holy week all.

  29. Steve Avatar

    Sublime indeed Michael. Glory to Jesus Christ!

  30. Mathaytayss Alaythayahss Avatar
    Mathaytayss Alaythayahss

    Cool discussion, great original post.

    The New Testament Greek always says Xristos anestay (aorist), for which the most obvious translation is “Christ rose/arose.”

    For theological reason, the preferred English liturgical translation has always been the familiar “Christ is risen.” This used to be a perfect form in English, but now we would describe it as a copula with a participial adjective.

    The Spanish liturgical translation uses the perfect tense, “Cristo ha resucitado,” or “Christ has risen,” though the Spanish perfect includes continuing effects in the present as implied by “Christ is risen.”

    If we imagine back-translating the English liturgical “Christ is risen” into biblical Greek, we would not use the aorist. We would seek the participial adjective form with copula implied, getting “anistamenos ho Xristos.”

    Back-translating the Spanish would yield “Xristos anestayke.”

    Unfortunately for those of us who love the original poster’s comment that we don’t shout “Christ rose” at Easter, that’s the NT phrasing.

    HOWEVER, I think we can agree that in deciding what to joyfully tell each other tomorrow, theology and tradition trump literalism AND the phrasing of the NT text.

    Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

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