Lazarus + Jesus - a story
While I was on retreat over half-term (during the last week of May) in a Benedictine monastery in the south-east of France I decided to try and rework a short story that I had written whilst on retreat the previous year… In the end I completely re-wrote it and am much happier with the results, but I can’t say that I’m fully responsible for it. The words seemed to just come straight out without any effort, which is very unlike me. I often struggle to write song lyrics when I find myself with a nice musical idea. Anyway, I’m sharing it on here...
Lazarus + Jesus"How he loves us..."
Jesus wept... and still weeps for us... but he also shares our joy, just as he did with Martha, Mary...
... and Lazarus. What a party that must have been!
*****There was no sign of a break in Lazarus' fever. It was now over a week since he had fallen unwell. For much of that time he had been unable to eat and was constantly retching, even though when he did nothing came. All he could do was try to sip the tonic that his physician friend had been trying to persuade him to drink - and rest, though neither was making him feel any better. He could feel his strength slowly ebbing away.
Martha - dearest Martha - was becoming more and more frantic with worry, the older sister admonishing her younger brother one moment for not making more of an effort to eat and drink, and then hugging and kissing him and telling him how much her and Mary loved him and that he couldn't abandon them... he just couldn't. They needed him! But it was when looking into his younger sister Mary's eyes that his heart was torn with worry, for himself and for his sisters. Mary could always communicate with one silent glance as much as Martha could with her constant stream of words. It was typical of Lazarus to be more worried about how his illness upset them and about how he was a burden to them than about his own condition Both sisters were inwardly devastated that Jesus hadn't yet arrived in response to their urgent message. Why was he delaying? Did he not realise the seriousness of his lifelong friend's condition? Had he been arrested? Martha had seen what he was capable of in terms of healing and knew that he would not refuse Lazarus the same gift. She hadn't given up hope that Jesus would come to their aid, but he was cutting it fine to say the least. As was her habit, she sought to keep busy as a way of hiding her true feelings, but with diminishing success. Their neighbours were being typically generous in their support of the three siblings, a group of them getting on with the practical tasks involved in running a thriving inn, leaving Martha and her younger sister Mary all the time they needed to look after their ailing brother. Mary sat with Lazarus, holding his hand and praying over him, occasionally mopping his brow and reminding him of humorous incidents from their childhood.
How he loved his sisters. Neither had married, though there had been plenty of suitors. They had been but young children when their parents died within 6 months of each other. Despite the kindly attentions of older relatives and neighbours worried for the future of the 3 orphans, Martha had insisted that they could cope on their own. She was a very old 13 years by then and had long observed how her parents ran the inn that was their family's livelihood. With the help of some kindly villagers in Bethany who kept an eye on them and helped with practical tasks as and when needed, the three children succeeded against the odds in maintaining the family business. In fact, business even seemed to improve after their parents' deaths, perhaps in part out of pity, but also perhaps because these sweet, likeable but hard-working and mature children were simply a pleasure to be around. The good-natured, innocent humour with which the 3 interacted with each other and with the adults who came to stay created such a pleasant atmosphere in the little inn, that people often stayed an extra night or two than originally planned, simply because being there seemed to have such a positive effect on their own well-being: inner burdens were lightened and worries faded away. Guests left with smiles on their faces and love in their hearts. These children had the knack of bringing out the best in people. The villagers were justly proud of their 3 little prodigies and made sure that they never wanted for anything. The children's parents had been known for their generosity and kindness towards their neighbours and fellow villagers, especially in times of greatest need and this was their way of saying thank you to the family for all that they had done over the years.
Their friendship with a certain Jesus of Nazareth took its origins from the time when Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary had arrived in Bethany at midday looking for somewhere to take a meal on their way to Bethlehem for the census, hoping to arrive in Bethlehem later that day. Joseph had enough supplies with him to cater for them both and eat outdoors, but preferred at this stage to try and give Mary as much shelter and warmth as possible given that it was surely not long now until she went in to labour. However, he had to balance his care for his wife and child with what felt like a message from God in his heart that she had to give birth in Bethlehem, the home of the great King David's royal line, his own clan. So, the plan was to have a break, rest and eat, and then set off on the final leg of their journey, no more than about 8 miles.
Martha was barely a year old at this point and her mother was pregnant with Lazarus. She took a liking to Mary as soon as Joseph and his wife arrived at their inn (Indeed, they decided to name their third child after her). Martha's mother saw in Mary a quiet, but confident young woman (very young, actually) with strength of character on the verge of motherhood. She was struck by how at peace Mary seemed, despite the imminent birth and its associated pain. The two of them struck up a bond immediately, as did Joseph with Martha's father. Before leaving, Joseph and Mary promised to come and stay the next time they came to Jerusalem for the Passover.
In the end, it was over two years before they could hold their promise. But once they did it became a family tradition that they would each year come and stay at Bethany. Joseph even received commissions from the family for new furniture and helped to cover the cost of their stay each year by coming down early to carry out maintenance work on the building before the religious celebrations began and the number of pilgrims was at its peak.
Jesus loved these trips. He loved the celebrations in the Temple, the chance to listen to and question the learned men. Each time he returned to Nazareth with his parents he felt that he understood a little better the nature of his special relationship with God. It took his parents some time to get used the fact that from an early age he would talk of his "Abba" Joseph and his "Abba" God, but get used to it they did.
Above all, Jesus loved to spend time with his dear friends, Martha, Lazarus and Mary. Lazarus had been born a few weeks after Jesus. Together with Jesus' cousin John, Lazarus was someone who seemed to instinctively understand who Jesus was in a spiritual sense, but also what made him tick as a person: both the boy and the man. As boys, Lazarus knew that Jesus enjoyed letting off steam outdoors: all kinds of games and sports, hide and seek, climbing trees... just like most boys. Things changed somewhat once Lazarus' parents had passed away as he had to pull his weight around the inn, but they still spent plenty of time together during Jesus' family's annual visits. He began to show Lazarus how to mend furniture, sculpt wooden figures of birds and animals and other manual skills that he had learned under instruction from his carpenter father. Lazarus became particularly proficient at the sculptures. He had a keen eye and managed to imbue his animal figures with an energy and spirit that brought admiring comments from his friend and artistic mentor as well as from their day to day guests. Much of his work adorned the inn and even became an extra source of revenue for the three of them.
As adults, Lazarus' humorous, light-hearted banter, jokes and stories that fell upon Jesus' ears as soon as he crossed their threshold was like a balm for his soul: laughter and light, smiles, a relaxed atmosphere, somewhere he could let his hair down and pretend for a while he was just your average working man on pilgrimage to the Temple.
Joseph and Mary had been incredibly fond of the three of them. In the early years after their parents' deaths they made a couple of extra visits to Bethany to offer help in any way they could, advising the three young adults on how to manage a budget, how to improve their cookery skills and more besides. One year when Jesus was about 18 he and his father came and stayed with a couple of Joseph's carpenter associates to help build and furnish an extension to the inn. It was during this particular trip that Jesus spent more time than usual with Mary. He'd known for some years - as had Lazarus and Martha - that she had a crush on him. For a while Lazarus would gently make fun of her for it, but on this trip he drew tears when making a comment about the time he saw them spend together and he realised that he had gone too far. Jesus never forgot the touching way her elder brother apologised, wiped away her tears and took her in his arms. It was then that Jesus realised he owed all three of them - but especially Mary - an explanation. He would have to forego marriage for the sake of the work his father God had planned for him. He was also by that stage well aware that what he had to say would not go down well in all quarters of the Jewish community and that things could end badly. He didn't want to put a wife and children through such suffering. It was Martha who expressed what the three of them were thinking: "When do you start?" Jesus replied that his father Joseph still needed him to help with the business and that he was still far too young to be taken seriously as a Rabbi. He had to continue studying the holy scriptures, continue listening to those older than he and learn from them, but ultimately he had to wait until he felt his father God saying to him that it was time.
With each year that passed, Martha, Lazarus and Mary would discuss among themselves prior to the Passover when Jesus would finally begin his public mission. But deep down they knew the answer. As long as Joseph was alive Jesus would be by his side working on the family carpentry business and his mother would be providing for the needs of her two men. They were a very close family unit. Joseph's failing eyesight meant that he relied more and more on Jesus and their small group of employees to carry the burden of the manual work, whilst he organised and managed their activities. Jesus thought the world of his father and felt he owed him so much. He used to observe Joseph dealing with clients. He had a knack for making others feel special. Work on a particular house or furniture repair would often last longer than it should because the client would start to unburden themselves of their woes to Joseph who never failed to give people his full attention. He clearly had a gift for listening to others, for generating trust, allowing people the freedom to tell their stories. Jesus soon realised that he too had that same ability.
Joseph adored his son even though he was not flesh of his flesh. As far as he was concerned their relationship was as genuine as any father-son relationship could be, even though he knew that ultimately it was Jesus' father God who called the shots and that when the time came Jesus would have to leave them.
In the end the catalyst for Jesus beginning his mission was the death of Joseph. Before dying in Jesus' arms Joseph made Jesus promise to make sure that if anything were to happen to him once he had begun his father God's mission his mother would be cared for and not want for anything. Jesus nodded his head, knowing that he would be able to rely on his three friends in Bethany and then warmly embraced his father, saying "Abba, today you will be with me in paradise!" He could feel his father's incomprehension and let him look into his eyes. A glorious vision suddenly opened up before Joseph. He felt weightless and had the simultaneous sensations of stillness and of moving incredibly fast away from his physical body. Then before him appeared once more his son Jesus, now transfigured, bathed in brilliant light. He felt so loved that it just overwhelmed him. They embraced again and Joseph heard the words "This is our son, our beloved. Thank you, Joseph, faithful servant. You have done well." His heart exploded with joy. The transfigured Jesus took Joseph by the hand and led him off into the light to join their Father...
Jesus let Joseph's limp body fall back onto the bed and let his tears fall onto his father's cheeks. He had wanted to save him, had wanted to tap into the growing power he felt inside that he knew instinctively came from his father God, but it would have been to delay the inevitable.
And anyway... it was time.
And now it was time for Jesus and his followers to head back to Judea, to the place where his simple presence would at present be enough to get himself arrested. Jesus knew that what he was to do for Lazarus (and the way he would do it) would more than likely provoke the Jewish leaders into taking drastic action against him.
Lazarus whispered to his sisters, "Martha... Mary... don't worry for me. You know what Jesus says, that we will each rise again to be with him forever. We will be together again in heaven. I believe him with all my heart. If he isn't here to save me now, maybe it's my time, but I know he will save me for eternal life. I love you both so much." Lazarus genuinely felt no bitterness that Jesus was not there to heal him. The tears were flowing freely down his sisters' faces, but Martha in particular had calmed down greatly. As Lazarus was speaking she felt her own anger at Jesus' absence slowly dissipate to be replaced by acceptance. She gently laid her head on his shoulder, Mary doing the same from the other side of the bed. With his final ounces of energy Lazarus stroked his sisters' hair. Other relatives and close friends gathered closer around the bed, some praying in whispers. After a few minutes his breathing slowed and the stroking stopped. As the sisters looked up they caught a glimpse of Lazarus seeming to look far away above them, his mouth opening in astonishment with just a hint of a smile. Then he closed his eyes, his chin sank onto his chest and he exhaled his final breath. A great peace filled the room. Time seemed to stand still.
Then the wailing began...
By the time Jesus and his follows did arrive four days later the anger in Martha had returned, but the conversation she had with Jesus, including her act of faith in the resurrection (she found herself practically repeating the words that Lazarus had uttered on his death bed) led her to dare hope that it wasn't too late for her brother. It was something in Jesus' demeanour. He was clearly upset to see his dear friends' grief, especially when he saw the state that Mary was in, and yet there was a sparkle, an excitement in his eyes that made her pulse race.
He asked the sisters to lead him to the tomb. Once they had arrived he turned to face the crowd of mourners that had followed them. They too sensed that something special was going to happen. The tears, the wailing had stopped to be replaced by an expectant, respectful silence. After a few moments of making eye contact with as many of the crowd as he could, Jesus lifted his arms and began speaking in a voice that seemed to come from all around them, the rocks, the trees, the earth beneath, the sky above: an elemental vibration, the voice of creation carrying with it authority, wisdom, love: the voice of God-made-flesh, the Son speaking to the Father, and that voice was Spirit.
“Father, I thank you that you have listened to me. I knew that you always listen to me, but I say this for the sake of the crowd standing around here, that they may believe that you sent me..."
In the moment of his death all the pain disappeared and Lazarus felt enveloped in what seemed like a cloak of peace, joy and of love. All around him was the most beautiful display of colour and light. He felt weightless. He noticed below him a procession, at the front his body was being carried. He saw his sisters. He wanted to call out to them to say that he was fine, but he couldn't. He saw the stone being rolled into place to close his tomb in the side of a hill outside Jerusalem. Then suddenly the scene dropped away from him. The colours and lights from before now flew past him in brilliant streaks, his senses hyper-activated. His soul, his essence seemed to be vibrating in harmony with the universe. He heard himself think, "Wait till they see this!" Though weightless, he somehow felt he was falling forward or upward, being drawn through the very fabric of creation by an irresistible force and this force was bringing him home, bringing him to where he belonged. As he went he noticed how dirty he was compared to the brightness and perfection of all he saw around him, and then his dirtiness, his imperfection started to be stripped away, revealing his own brightness and colour.
He began to think of his parents and then suddenly it was as if they were there beside him, carrying him on. He felt their love and pride, felt their embrace. Then a rapidly growing light appeared ahead of him. He could just about make out a figure in the light... Jesus! It was Jesus! Everything became very still. There they were, the two childhood friends. Lazarus was seeing... feeling the presence of that person there, all their shared memories, and at the same time that Jesus was so much more than just the person he had known. He was indeed the Messiah, God's chosen one, his Son. Then Jesus spoke: "Thank you, Lazarus!" Feelings of unworthiness swept over him. Why thank him? What had he done that was so special?... And then he understood. Jesus wanted him to go back. "You will help me to tell them how much I love them all, Lazarus, all of them, each and every one. Don't try to explain the details of what you have experienced here in words - they are not ready for that - but let it shine through your very being. Let them see in you my love, the joy of knowing that love. Let them sense in you an appreciation of the beauty of creation. Be an example to them... and thank you for being a friend and brother to me." Emotion welled up inside of Lazarus. It was all too much, too much to take in. His parents were still there. He felt Jesus' love for them too, for everybody, for his sisters, even for those who did not believe in him.
He so desired to stay there with them, to dwell in the safety and the love that enveloped his being, but he had been given a mission and it was time for it to begin. "Next time you can stay for good." Now that Lazarus had a sense of what was waiting for them in the afterlife he had so much to look forward to (this thought was to sustain him throughout the years ahead). Then, deep inside his mind, he heard... "LAZARUS, COME OUT!"
He wasn't prepared for the shock of feeling gravity's pull on his wasted physical body once more, but even worse was the smell. He couldn't breathe. He felt himself roll and fall to the floor. Somehow he managed to unravel the cloth from around his head and he began to breathe more easily. Jesus stood in the doorway to the tomb enveloped in light and Lazarus caught an echo of his experience in the afterlife. As he staggered towards the light, Jesus ran towards him and embraced him heartily, kissed him on the forehead and whispered, "Thank you!" Lazarus couldn't help himself. He winked an eye and quipped, "Anytime, my friend." Jesus burst out laughing. This was the cue for his sisters to come running and then everyone else. Martha and Mary were crying tears of joy as they unwound the cloths with which he had been bound. Martha reached out an arm to Jesus and drew him close. Pretending to be angry with him she shouted, "I'll never forgive you!", but the squeeze of his waist and the smile that creased her face despite her best efforts to restrain it showed Jesus that she already had. They stood there, holding each other in a four-way embrace Martha, Lazarus, Mary and Jesus, four kindred spirits, united in love. After one last squeeze Jesus said, "Come on, let's give this man some food. He must be starving." "I am!"
Although the extraordinary events of the next few weeks were to make it dangerous for the three of them to remain so close to Jerusalem, they unanimously decided to stay, their inn becoming a refuge for Jesus' followers and then later on a full blown community of people devoted to spreading the message of the Way.
Lazarus outlived his sisters, for which he was very grateful. He hadn't wanted to put them through the same trauma twice. In the end they were the ones he felt by his side as he was once again drawn through the spectrum of the universe. And when Jesus appeared to him he was welcomed with a wink and the words "Welcome home, my friend!" Lazarus winked back.
"He loves us
Oh, how he loves us,
Oh, how he loves us,
Oh, how he loves...."
(John Mark McMillan - "How He Loves")
Oh, how he loves us,
Oh, how he loves us,
Oh, how he loves...."
(John Mark McMillan - "How He Loves")