“The Walking Dead”
Today July 29 is the official celebration day of two sisters and a brother: Martha, Mary and Lazarus. They are from Bethany, a city on the West Bank close to Jerusalem. And it’s the place where Lazarus miraculously resurrected from death, through the hand of Jesus, four days after his entombment. This has been a popular story throughout history and depicted for over 1000 years. Now we have Netflix and “The Walking Dead” series, but in those days there were only paintings to support imagination. The miracle of returning to life gave hope over the fear of death. And from a religious point of view this is a true “Act of God”.
The raising of Lazarus is a miracle of Jesus recounted in the Gospel of John (John 11:1–44) in the New Testament part of the Bible. Jesus raises Lazarus of Bethany from death, four days after his entombment. It went as follows. Lazarus became ill and his sisters Marta and Mary (note: this is Mary of Bethany and not Mary, the Mother of Christ) contacted Jesus to help curing their brother. He visited the sisters only after Lazarus already passed away. But no worries, they went to the tomb of Lazarus and Jesus said, “Take away the stone”. Martha then said, “it will stink, he has been in that tomb for four days”. That’s depicted by members of the crowd cover their noses with cloth. They took away the stone and Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead Lazarus came out, his hands and feet wrapped in his grave cloths, but alive and kicking and lived for another 30 years. Jesus also said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
On the pictures are usually Martha and Mary, the two sisters of Lazarus, whose gestures and expressions record successive states of awareness and awe, and a crowd of astounded witnesses and some of Jesus’ followers. And the two main characters of course: Jesus making signs to resurrect Lazarus, and Lazarus himself getting up out of his grave. The story goes on, as Lazarus never smiled during the thirty years after his resurrection, worried by the sight of unredeemed souls he had seen during his four-day stay in Hell.
The event is said to have taken place at Bethany. This is the last of the miracles that Jesus performs before the passion, crucifixion and his own resurrection, linking Lazarus’ resurrection with Jesus’ resurrection, and through faith as a sign of hope for all Jesus’ followers. John Calvin summarized it nicely when he said, “not only did Christ give a remarkable proof of his Divine power in raising Lazarus, but he likewise placed before our eyes a lively image of our future resurrection.” The Lazarus story also appeared in Islamic tradition. Although the Quran mentions no specific figure named Lazarus, among the miracles with which he Quran credits Jesus, the raising of people from death is included.
The reputed tomb of Lazarus is in Bethany (now called: Al-Eizariya, which means “Place of Lazarus”) and continues to be a place of pilgrimage to this day. Several Christian churches have existed at the site over the centuries. Since the 16th century, the site of the tomb has been occupied by the al-Uzair Mosque to serve the town’s (now Muslim) inhabitants and named it in honor of the town’s patron saint, Lazarus of Bethany.
In medical science “Lazarus syndrome” refers to an event in which a person spontaneously returns to life (the heart starts beating again) after resuscitation has been given up. The “Lazarus sign” is a reflex which can occur in a brain-dead person, thus giving the appearance that they have returned to life. The difference between revival immediately after death, and resurrection after four days, is so great as to raise doubts about the historicity of the Lazarus story. The hand of God is needed!
I cannot resist to share an image of a more modern “Lazarus”, an artist impression of Béla Lugosi as Dracula from the famous 1931 film. At night, Dracula awakes from death and steps out of his coffin. Béla Lugosi made this Dracula image as iconic as Giotto did with his Lazarus fresco around 1305. Death and resurrection are eternal themes, based on a mixture of fear and hope. It’s with much wonder how we look at death and at the possibility to come back from the underworld. Are we identifying ourselves with Lazarus? And how about the nowadays series on Netflix, like “The Walking Dead”? I dare to see a similarity between a 13th century visitor to the Scrovegni Chapel, looking amazed at Giotto’s Lazarus, and ourselves watching an episode of The Walking Dead. It’s all a mixture of fear and hope. May we conquer death and may we come back to life, not like a zombie but in true divine Lazarus style!