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On Lazarus and the Spikenard

We all know that our Lord Jesus Christ raised Lazarus from the dead after four days.

The woman who poured the fragrant oil was celebrating–albeit unknowingly–the end of the stench of death and the beginning of a new era.

On that day, our Lord Jesus Christ was invited to the house of His beloved. Who are those beloved? They were Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha. And what about this new era? We read in the Psalms of David the Prophet that he saved a lamb from the mouth of a lion and the grasp of a bear.

Therefore, if God had permitted David to save mere animals, won’t He save His own children?

Lazarus remained in the grave for four days. Indeed, it was one of his nearest relatives, his own sister, who said, “By this time there is a stench.”

Yet, when our Lord Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, that stench along with all sorrow and grief were transformed into joy and happiness; death turned into a new life.

The age of death is gone; its power is annihilated and eradicated. Lazarus had been dead in the grave for four days. What decomposition and what stench! His soul had descended into Hades, the prison of souls, at a time when Christ was not yet crucified to descend into Hades and bring back those souls into the Paradise of Joy.

Consider the words of the Psalms, which read, “The voice of the LORD is powerful; The voice of the LORD is full of majesty” (Psalm 29:4). It makes the deserts shake and the mountains tremble; it extinguishes the flames of fires.

Now, we meet the Author of Life, our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, standing outside the grave and calling Lazarus: “Lazarus, come forth!” We instantaneously witness Lazarus obeying the words of our Lord. He who had died came out bound hand and foot with grave clothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth.

The Lord cries with a loud voice and calls Lazarus by his name.

Even though our Lord is “gentle and lowly in heart”–as is written about Him in the Holy Scriptures–and even though He does not cry out, fight, or yell, He cries loudly now that He confronts death, man’s final adversary. In similar fashion, Our Lord had cried on another occasion when He committed His spirit on the cross. We cannot help but wonder at this, because we typically neither see nor hear a person cry out powerfully when his soul is departing from the body! But this is the Living God who cried in a loud voice and committed His spirit. He is the Living God who never dies. That is why we say: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal,” for He is from everlasting to everlasting. Not only is our Lord a living God; He also makes the dead live again. He is the source of all life. Whosoever hears the word of Jesus lives.

“He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). Yet our Lord does not force people to follow Him. He told His disciples–even His closest–that they can leave if they wanted to. We all remember what Simon Peter, His disciple, said to those who abandon Christ: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). His are words that have no trace of death; His are words that give life. Indeed, they are the words of eternal life.

Our Lord Jesus Himself says: “Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live” (John 5:25). Truly, Lazarus heard the voice of our Lord in the grave and “those who hear will live.”

Lazarus is by no means the only dead whom Our Lord Jesus brings back to life. We, too, have been raised from the dead. Paul the Apostle says, “…even when we were dead in trespasses, [He] made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Ephesians 2:5).

We all know that death was the price of Adam and Eve’s sin; death was our punishment: “For as in Adam all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22). God warned Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or he “will surely die.” After the Fall, He punished Adam: “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17). He also punished Eve: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16). There had to be some punishment; it was death for all mankind. Death, that is, until our Lord Jesus came and took flesh in order to replace our eternal death with life everlasting: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.”

Saint Paul the Apostle also says, “And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (1 Corinthians 15:49). We all believe that, with Holy Baptism, we bear the image of our Lord Jesus Christ. When the priest baptizes a person, he says: “Buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” For this reason, the priest submerges the baptized three times. The first time he plunges the baptized completely under water and says “I baptize you in the name of the Father.” He then blows in their face as a symbol of breathing the Holy Spirit into them. Then he plunges them again saying: “I baptize you in the name of the Son” and blows again. Finally, he plunges them a third time saying: “I baptize you in the name of the Holy Spirit” and blows once again. There is a new life for this person receiving Holy Baptism. This is also reminiscent of what Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

There has to be a new beginning, a new birth. The day in which we are physically born is inconsequential. What is really important is the new birth which is from water and the Spirit: “And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man,” that is, our Lord Jesus Christ.

This feast that Lazarus’ family made is also reminiscent of the great celebration that the father made upon the return of his prodigal son. We remember how the son journeyed to a far country and squandered his father’s inheritance and livelihood with a prodigal living. This is the parable of the lost son, a symbol of every one of us when we abandon our Lord. When we abandon our Lord, we become stray, lost and bewildered. We feel we have no body to take care of us; we feel hopeless, helpless and confused. That is what the Israelites experienced in the wilderness of Sinai. They were lost and confounded for forty years. According to the Scriptures, God was not pleased with the Israelites and their condition. Almost no one pleased the Lord. Because of their rebellion and disobedience, they all perished in the wilderness. Out of many, only few entered Canaan, the Promised Land: “Only few are saved.”

When the lost son returned to his heavenly Father, he threw him a big party, killed the fatted calf to eat and make merry. When the older son returned from the field and heard the music and dancing, he asked what was happening. When they told him that his younger brother came back and that the father is celebrating with a big feast, he became angry, and so forth. We all know the rest of the story. The important thing here is that or heavenly Father is conveying to His son the feeling of happiness on such an occasion: “It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found” (Luke 15:32).

Today we commemorate and celebrate this feast, this occasion. It demonstrates the great joy and happiness of our Lord Jesus Christ. This joy and happiness is not limited or confined to our Lord Jesus alone; the heavenly hosts also rejoice, as our Lord said, “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). The opposite is also true. In the present situation, however, the heaven and all the heavenly hosts, all the angels and all the saints who have preceded us into the Paradise of Joy rejoice and make merry over one sinner who repents for a sinner is, in spiritual terms, dead.

At the supper which the Lazarus family made for our Lord Jesus Christ, Christ sits with Lazarus, the resurrected, and Lazarus throws himself into the bosom of our Lord. There can no longer be death. Whosoever embraces our Lord will be given life. It is inconceivable that our Lord would stand outside Lazarus’ grave while Lazarus continues in lifelessness and death. Death flees away from the face of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Author of Life. Death can never confront Him. Wherever our Lord goes, death escapes, illness disappears and sin flees away and vanishes. However, we have to do certain things; we have to practice and train ourselves to be worthy of these generous and lavish blessings that our Lord abundantly bestows upon us. Tonight we have an event that embodies the triumph and victory of life just as it reflects the defeat and vanquish of death. Further, it is an event that gives glory to our Lord Jesus.

Mary, Lazarus’ sister–whom the church also calls “the pupil of Jesus’ feet,” because she was always eager to sit at the feet of Jesus to listen keenly and enthusiastically to His Divine Word–came to Him. Mary was a meek and quiet woman. Our Lord Jesus describes her as a woman who has “has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). Is there anything better and more worthwhile than for man to sit at the feet of Christ to listen to Him? Not only should man listen, but he should also understand and translate what he hears into deeds and actions. In addition to understanding, man should spread the word of Christ everywhere and to everyone. Of Mary, Our Lord says that she has chosen the good inheritance which will never be taken away from her.

Our Lord has graciously granted that whosoever sits at His feet will have a share and an inheritance that no one will take away from them. Listening to the word is not an end in itself: it is more important to transcend words and replace them with action. That is why David the prophet says: “What shall I render to the LORD For all His benefits toward me?” (Psalm 116:12). The Lord’s blessings are plentiful, His goodness is abundant, and His kindness and beneficences are far reaching. The church calls Him the Beneficent: “Let us give thanks to the beneficent and merciful God…” The Lord gives us abundantly and bountifully. That is why the church cannot but thank God ceaselessly and without intercession. We thank God everywhere and at all times. We thank God for every condition, concerning every condition and in every condition. We thank Him when we are rejoicing as well as when we are in mourning, in joy and in sorrow. We, therefore, start all church services with thanksgiving because we ought to thank Him in every condition even in death and sickness. We should be giving thanks no matter what trials confront us.

Mary took upon herself this great service: offering her thanks mixed with the oil of spikenard. The house–or for that matter–the church was instantaneously filled with the fragrance of the oil. Where Jesus is there will be a church. Jesus was in the house of Lazarus; therefore, his house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. We oftentimes refer to the sweet-smelling, fragrant aroma of Christ.

This morning, we were talking about the question posed by Lazarus’ sister, Martha: “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days” (John 11:39).

What are we talking about now, this evening? The picture has completely changed; we are talking about a different topic, a reversed condition. Now there is the fragrance of the oil, the aroma of the sweet smelling spikenard on Christ. With Christ, negatives are replaced with positives; mourning turns into joy and death is transformed into life. The stench of death vanishes and the fragrance of Christ, of Life, reins full supreme.

In the midst of all of this, a meaningless and insignificant question is posed: Why all this waste? “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:5). The Bible tells us that Judas did not say this because he cared for the poor; rather, he was only thinking about himself.

“Why all this waste?” Well! When one ponders over the great deed that this blessed woman did, we can not help but feel shocked and baffled by the confidence and surety with which Judas made his comment. It is just utterly and inconceivably preposterous to describe the pouring of the fragrant oil on the feet of Christ as a “waste.” It is simply unthinkable! However costly that spikenard was, it had taken its true vale, even its very fragrance, from being poured on the feet of our beloved Lord. It is not the spikenard that gave a sweet-smelling fragrant aroma to Christ. Rather, it is the body of Christ that infused that spikenard with fragrance and value.

There are deeds that are wholeheartedly offered, sacrificed, even poured at the feet of our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. Such deeds as worship, fasting and asceticism are offered to our Lord personally. Those who have experienced a deep and intimate life with Christ have become endowed with some of the mysteries that they share with the Lord. This is because they pour themselves out in deeds that specifically target the glory of Christ Himself. These deeds essentially differ from other types of service such as caring for the widows, consoling and protecting the oppressed, and visiting and helping those in need. While it is true that these services are offered to Christ, they are not offered to Him personally; rather, they are offered to others in His name. These deeds are also rewarded, of course, but the reward is greater when we offer to Christ Himself and pour ourselves at His feet for, in this case, we do not want anything from Him. On the contrary, we want to offer Him glory, honor and blessing. We are no longer selfish, thinking only of ourselves and always asking Him for this and that: “Give me this! Give me that.” In our selfishness we will not be able to find our Lord Jesus Christ Himself when we want to thank Him, honor Him or glorify Him. How, then, can I offer Him the things that touches Him personally?

Therein lies the difference between Martha and Mary in every generation: Mary exists in every generation, and so does Martha. In defense of this great and blessed woman, our Lord Jesus responds to the question: “Why all this waste?” He was pleased with her deed; He thanked and commended her for it: “A good deed she has done to me.” Our Lord looked favorably upon her thanksgiving and her worship. We should, therefore, not heed what others may say when we offer something to our Lord. We should not concern ourselves with what they say or do. Christ’s praise is sufficient: “A good deed she has done me.”

It is the custom of our great beloved church that during funeral services for old women–those who have spent their lives with Christ, brought up her children in the fear of the Lord, washed the feet of the saints, and those who have enthusiastically and keenly worked to perfect every good deed–to read this Gospel to honor and commemorate their work. Such women as these have filled the church with rich fragrant aroma. It is the fragrance of their good deeds. They deserve the same praise and honor from the mouth of our Lord Jesus.

Tomorrow, we will celebrate Palm Sunday, the day our Lord rides into Jerusalem. He is the King and we all know that He entered this city as a King. Yet, we also know that He lived in self-denial rejecting the glory and praise of others; He is “gentle and lowly in heart.” He did not ride on a royal majestic chariot; He did not want that. However, He allowed the multitude to receive Him that day, and for the first time, as a King, not an earthly king, but a heavenly King, a King of the hearts which is the Kingdom of God. Our Lord entered Jerusalem in meekness and lowliness in heart yet triumphant and victorious. What triumph? What victory? Over whom? He did not defeat an army. He did not conquer soldiers or people. Rather, He conquered and defeated death, the last adversary, the final opponent.

Lazarus, whom our Lord Jesus raised from the dead, is a true conclusive testimony and a valid unquestionable proof. Our Lord is a King. He rides into Jerusalem to have victory and conquer death to give us eternal life in Him.

Glory and honor to our Lord and God, now and forever. Amen.

Contemplation on John 11:1-45; 11:55-12:11

Posted by Fr. Moses Samaan

February 22, 2009