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James Martin, S.J.August 17, 2023

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

The dying is not the most important part of the Gospel story of the raising of Lazarus, which is traditionally called Jesus’ “greatest miracle” and which, in John’s Gospel, will ultimately lead to Jesus’s crucifixion.

Everyone dies. People in first-century Bethany, the site of this story (now current-day Al-Eizariya, in Palestinian territory), knew this. Because of the poor sanitary conditions and only rudimentary medicine, death was a constant companion. But rising from the dead? In Jesus’ ministry this had happened only twice before, once with the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue official, and again with the son of the widow of Nain. But neither of those was as dramatic as the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus’s rising is the point of the story.

Come Forthby James Martin, S.J.

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The most important part of this story for John is that the sign of the raising of Lazarus prompts people to believe or not believe. It is what the Greeks would call a “crisis,” a time for a decision. (The word krisiscomes from krinein, meaning “to decide.”) For all who saw it, Lazarus’s rising would have forced the question: Do I believe in Jesus or not?

The final act in the story of Lazarus is not about death, but about life. And moving toward life is more than simply letting something die in the tomb.

In our own time, most of you reading the story of Lazarus have probably already made your choice for Jesus. The crisis for you may be different: Do you believe that Jesus can give you new life—not in the way that he gave it to Lazarus, but in your life as you live it?

The final act in the story of Lazarus is not about death, but about life. And moving toward life is more than simply letting something die in the tomb. Or even dying to self. Because neither are things that we do. Rather, God invites us to let go in order that we might receive new life. For every death to self there is a rising. And we have to let go.

But the real work—the raising—is done by God.

It is also important to remember the cost to Jesus of doing this. As Brendan Byrne points out in his book Come to the Light: Reflections on the Gospel of John, Jesus had put his own life at risk by leaving a region of safety (across the Jordan) to travel to Judea to raise Lazarus, which reveals something important for all of us: “Here lies the most profound truth of the sequence: Lazarus stands in for each one of us. Each one of us is ‘Lazarus’: the ‘friend’ of Jesus, ‘the one whom he loved.’ For each one of us he left the ‘safe country’ of his existence with the Father in order, at the cost of his own life, to rescue us from death.”

What does this mean in practice? None of us is going to be raised from the dead as Lazarus was. But we are invited to accept not only that God can give us new life, not only that God wants to give us new life, but that God is giving us new life. In many ways.

None of us is going to be raised from the dead as Lazarus was. But we are invited to accept that God is giving us new life. In many ways.

‘When really you’re fine’

Sometimes new life is a matter of a new perspective. Recently I was offered a beautiful image of that.

Out of the blue I got an email from a friend of a friend. Chiara was the niece of an elderly priest who had worked for decades in Catholic parishes in Brooklyn and Queens, and whom I had never met. Now, at age 73, Father Andrew was near death, having come to the end of lengthy cancer treatments. Over the years, he had read some of my books, and his niece asked if I might meet with him virtually, over the internet, since he was struggling with his prayer. She asked if I might do a guided meditation with him. I said I was happy to.

Father Andrew and Chiara appeared onscreen a few days later, the priest lying in a comfortable recliner on the first floor of his rectory, an oxygen mask strapped to his face, alongside his smiling niece and another, younger, priest, who had been mentored by Father Andrew as a youth.

Father Andrew was a kind and gentle soul whom I liked immediately. Over the next hour, I led him through a simple guided meditation, inviting him to imagine himself at his favorite place, which turned out to be a beach on the southern shore of Long Island, and envision Jesus coming to speak with him. Afterward, I told him that he could do that meditation whenever he wanted. Eight days later, his niece told me that he had died.

The day after we met, Chiara sent me a note along with this reminiscence. She gave me permission to share it with you.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I brought my uncle to the beach. We put him in his wheelchair and walked him up and down the boardwalk. For a while, he and I sat there looking out at the ocean. We saw these two big ocean liners that looked like they were about to collide. Uncle reminded me that they were fine, it was just our perception. We spoke about how things appear one way from afar but then as you get closer—it’s totally different. Sometimes it seems like you are on a collision course, when really you’re fine.

Chiara wrote to me again a few weeks after her uncle died:

Maybe it’s hindsight, but I believe that when we had that conversation at Rockaway Beach about the ocean liners, we both knew that they represented death, though neither of us articulated it.

From my perspective, it seemed so far away, out in the distant future, not just a month away. I guess I’ll never quite know how he felt, but I do know that while he expressed some anxiety to me about death in those weeks, he also was at peace and even cracked jokes about it.

This is an example of how even the slightest shift in perspective can mean new life.

The most important part of this story for John is that the sign of the raising of Lazarus prompts people to believe or not believe.

Remember who is calling you

Living as a “raised person” will feel strange at first. As it probably did to Lazarus.

In Richard Zimler's beautiful novel The Gospel According to Lazarus, the raised man is dazed after his time in the tomb. Initially he can barely remember the miracle. Jesus, touchingly, asks for forgiveness for arriving late. “Too late for what?” Lazarus says to himself.

In time, his family helps restore him to full health. But it takes him a while to live fully; at first, he walks on “unsteady” legs. In two dramas, William Butler Yeats’s play “Calvary” and Kahlil Gibran’s play “Lazarus and His Beloved,” Lazarus even prefers to stay in the tomb.

It can feel like that at first. We hear the invitation to die to self and to experience new life, and we try to let go of the past. We see things, like Father Andrew’s boats, from a new perspective and suddenly things seem new.

Yet we wonder how to walk into the future, how to embrace the new life that God has given us.

Initially it will feel unnatural, uncertain, unsteady, sometimes even false. Who are we to live in the new life? Who are we to say that we have been freed when we see so many people still in their tombs? (My friend Joseph McAuley said to me, “If we all knew what was to happen after we were born, we might want to stay in the womb!”) It’s natural for us to feel this way, to ask such questions. Yet this is where God wants us.

This may sound abstract. What might it mean in the concrete? Let’s take a specific case and a general case. Both are common in the spiritual life.

Let’s say that you feel an invitation to be kinder. You’re not a hardened criminal or a moral monster, but you’ve been, at times, cruel. You wield a sharp tongue with glee. Other people even praise you for your sarcasm. Whether out of spite, vengefulness or a desire not to let anyone take advantage of you, you’re sometimes pretty mean to other people. You’ve always made excuses: “They deserved it.” “No one should get the better of me.” “It’s a dog-eat-dog world.” Or maybe you think you are a great wit, cutting people down to size, à la Oscar Wilde.

But at heart you have to face it: Sometimes you’re mean.

Then something happens—a look of hurt on someone’s face, a chance conversation, a friend challenging you, a family member hurt by what you said, a therapist helping you see things in a new light, an experience on a retreat, a sudden insight in prayer—that makes you realize that you’re being called to let that die.

Who are we to live in the new life? Who are we to say that we have been freed when we see so many people still in their tombs?

Losing a part of yourself

A Jesuit once described for me a biting remark he made about another Jesuit, who would often write (very good) articles about the same topic. My friend walked into a room and said, “Oh, I see that Americamagazine published your article—again!” When the assembled crowd laughed, my friend saw the other Jesuit’s face crumple in embarrassment. It was then that he saw he had to be kinder.

That part of you—the mean part—is not what God wants for you. You realize that simply being kind is an enormous part of the Christian life—of any moral life. It does not comprise a complete moral system (at some point one has to look beyond just individual kindness and into larger social questions of justice), but it is an essential part of living a moral life. Being kind, which may sound banal, now takes on greater import.

You realize that you need to stop bad-mouthing people behind their backs, spreading negative stories about them; you need to be more patient when people are rude to you; you need to lend a helping hand more often to your friends and family who are in need; you need to listen more; you need to be more attentive—to be, in a word, kind. It suddenly seems like the most important thing in the world. Your heart quickens when you think of changing. You want to change, as my friend told me that he did.

You trust that God wants you to let that other part of you go, once and for all. It has to go.

But there’s a problem: You’re not sure how to do it. The negative trait has been so much a part of you that it almost feels like giving up a limb. You wonder: What will my friends think if I suddenly become nicer? If I lose my famous sarcasm? For that matter, what will happen if I let down the armor that I’ve been using to protect myself? Like Lazarus, you emerge, probably blinking in the sunlight of God’s love.

Or perhaps your desire to change is not focused on a particular failing but is a more universal desire, something that affects almost every aspect of life.

Perhaps you feel that it’s finally time to become an adult. You’ve been handling things for so long the way that you did when you were a child or an adolescent. Perhaps you react to difficult things the way a child would: with impatience, petulance or simply a desire that those things would just go away. You often respond purely out of emotion: raging at people when they contradict you, sulking when you are criticized and being resentful when things don’t go your way, much as a small child would. Maybe you’re tired of your childish attitudes and behaviors. It’s the way you’ve always lived, but you want to change. You want to become more adult.

Or perhaps you shirk responsibilities, preferring to let others do the hard work in your family, among your friends or on the job. In Ronald Rolheiser’s superb book Sacred Fire, which lays out a spirituality for “Christian maturity,” he speaks about the responsibilities of middle age. In this phase of life, you’ve made choices and commitments and carry “major responsibilities.” In his vivid words, “We carry the car keys, the house keys, and the debt for both.”

We wonder how to walk into the future, how to embrace the new life that God has given us.

Staying the course

Sacred Fire brought together much of what I had been thinking as I turned 50, when for many people life can seem an endless round of responsibilities, work and stress, especially after we have taken on the commitment of marriage or parenthood or even priesthood. Rolheiser says that this is the time when we are called to an adult embrace of even the “boredom, the longing for a second honeymoon, mid-life crisis, misunderstanding, disillusionment and numerous other things that eat away at our fidelity like rust on iron.”

In those times, says Rolheiser, “real life depends on staying the course.” Many years ago, when I was in a time of discernment over a course of action, my brother Jesuit Daniel Berrigan wrote a letter to me reminding me that I was a Jesuit “for the long haul” and to make decisions with that in mind. Both he and Rolheiser were getting at the same thing: the need for fidelity, keeping promises and honoring commitments that you have made. This also means a certain amount of letting go of other possibilities. Every choice, as my current spiritual director says, is a renunciation of sorts.

Father Rolheiser poses a question that a gifted counselor might pose to an adult facing the temptation to walk away from the life of an adult: “What do you really want to do here?” He notes that this question works on three levels, but it is the last one “upon which life-giving decisions most often turn: What do I think is the wisest thing to do here? What would I most like to do here? What do I have to do here?” All these questions are part of the adult way of life, which you now feel invited to live.

To return to the image of Lazarus, you feel the call to come out of the tomb, to live in a new way, whether it’s letting go of a particular habit, like being mean, or moving into a whole new way of approaching life, like being more of an adult. You feel it’s an invitation from God to emerge from the tomb—and it is.

Like us, Lazarus can only “come forth” because he knows and trusts in the person who calls him.

As you first emerge, it’s natural to feel unsteady. You’ve been in the dark for so long that the light will seem strange. The tomb feels safe and the outside feels dangerous. Death feels like life and life feels like death. But this is a lie, one way that you are kept away from God. And the voice that says, “You can’t do this” or “You’ll never get out of here” or “This isn’t real” is not coming from God.

Then you take the first tentative step out of the tomb. You try to live as if you were free of your grave cloths. You curb your tongue and find that you’re still alive. You try to be kind and find that it feels good. The mean thoughts and sarcastic quips come into your mind, but you are getting better at letting them die within you. Some days you fail.

This is when we are called to remember that we are not simply engaged in a self-improvement project, noble as that may be. Our change is also not simply something that we realized in therapy, as important as that is too. Nor is it simply something that came up in our prayer, or read in a book, or that a trusted friend or spiritual adviser suggested. All these things are important in themselves. But something else is going on. We are responding to God’s call. We know that God wants us to do this, wants us to change, and wants us to succeed.

But the process can be difficult. And it is then that we must remember who is calling us.

In our reflections on this Gospel passage, we may have downplayed something important: Lazarus’s role. Now, I won’t speculate on where Lazarus was during those four days—heaven, hell, purgatory or some other place—which is unknowable this side of the grave. All we know is that, as Jesus told the disciples emphatically, he was dead.

But after being called from that mysterious place, Lazarus must make a decision: to listen to Jesus’ voice, to rise from the stone bed on which he lay, and to walk out covered with his grave cloths, wondering what will await him; or to remain inside his tomb.

Lazarus is not passive: He must act. Lazarus had a choice. So do we.

This is our call, as we try to move toward the light that is offered to us. And, like us, Lazarus can only “come forth” because he knows and trusts in the person who calls him. He not only hears the words coming from the entrance to his tomb, but he recognizes the distinctive voice, and trusts the person speaking to him.

This is our task as well: to remember who is saying to us, “Come forth!”

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