LAZARUS, THE DISCIPLE WHOM JESUS LOVED
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. John 11:43-44
When Lazarus rose from the grave, after three days and nights in the mysterious thralldom of death, and returned alive to his home, it was a long time before anyone noticed the change in him that had made his life very terrible. His friends and relatives were jubilant that he had come back to life. They surrounded him with praise, spent the greatest care upon his food and drink and the new clothes they made for him. They dressed him gorgeously in the glowing colors of hope and laughter, and when he sat at the dinner table with them again, ate again, and drank again, they wept fondly and summoned the neighbors to look upon the man miraculously raised from the dead.
The neighbors came and were moved with joy. Strangers arrived from distant cities and villages to worship the miracle. They burst into the home of Mary and Martha and buzzed around like bees.
Everyone was in a state of their own euphoria. And hardly even noticed Lazarus.
During a brief lull in the excitement, Lazarus managed to escape with his friend John, yes the disciple.
“I cannot suffer this celebration any longer.”
John was caught off guard by Lazarus. He’d never heard him speak so directly before, especially an expression of discomfort. Yet, considering what had transpired, John did his best to maintain composure.
“Why? What’s going on Lazarus?”
“Have you ever suffered such agony you yearned for it to end? Been so feeble life itself became unbearable? Have you died before?”
“No, I haven’t. But isn’t your revival miraculous?”
“Miracle? I have to die again!”
“Yes, I understand,” John replied gently. “To others this seems a blessing. I’ll help bear what burden I can, my friend.”
John understood Lazarus in a way no one else did. He recognized the changes wrought by Lazarus’s death and miraculous revival. It wasn’t just his demeanor that had shifted. The illness that killed him, and the shock of returning, left his body gaunt and diminished. His fingers remained blue, his flesh soft and bloated – such was the reality of Lazarus’s second lease on life.
More than Lazarus’s appearance, his very spirit seemed transformed to John, though the difference went unmarked by others. Where Lazarus had once been cheerful and carefree, quick to laugh and joke gently, qualities that had so endeared him to his Master, he was now grave and withdrawn.
Rarely one to speak before, now his words grew even scanter, only the plain and necessary. In truth, Lazarus had always been a man of quiet depths and keen perception, though few realized it. He performed good works discreetly, avoiding acclaim. Now, he had become a disimpassioned mute.
Not merely Lazarus’ face, but his very character, it seemed, had changed; though it astonished no one and did not attract the attention it deserved. Before his death Lazarus had been cheerful and careless, a lover of laughter and harmless jest. It was because of his good humor, pleasant and equable, his freedom from meanness and gloom, that he had been so beloved by the Master. Now he was grave and silent; neither he himself jested nor did he laugh at the jests of others; and the words he spoke occasionally were simple, ordinary and necessary words – words as much devoid of sense and depth as are the sounds with which an animal expresses pain and pleasure, thirst and hunger. Such words a man may speak all his life and no one would ever know the sorrows and joys that dwelt within him.
Thus it was that Lazarus sat at the table among his friends and relatives – he was horribly changed and strange, yet Passover was fast approaching and he was going to put on a good face.
The large crowd of Jews discovered that he (Jesus) was there (in Bethany where he was anointed with perfume) and came to the scene – not only because of Jesus but to catch sight of Lazarus, the man whom he had raised from the dead. John 12:9-11
Peter recklessly lifted the veil at the doorway of the tabernacle. By one breath of an uttered word he destroyed the serene charm, and reverence of the occasion. No thought was clearly defined in his mind, when his lips smilingly asked: “Tell us Lazarus, what is it like there?” And all became silent, struck with the question. Only now it seemed to have occurred to them that for three days Lazarus had been dead; and they looked with curiosity, waiting an answer. But Lazarus remained silent.
“Why won’t you tell us?” wondered Peter. “Is it so terrible There?”
Again his thought lagged behind his words. Had it preceded them, he would not have asked the question, for, at the very moment he uttered it, his heart sank with regret. All grew restless; they awaited the words of Lazarus anxiously. But he was silent, cold and severe, and his eyes were cast down. And now, as if for the first time, they perceived the horrible bluishness of his face and the loathsome corpulence of his body. On the table, as if forgotten by Lazarus, lay his livid blue hand, and all eyes were riveted upon it, as though expecting the desired answer from that hand. The musicians still played; then silence fell upon them and the sounds died down. And all was quiet.
“You will not?” repeated Peter, unable to restrain his babbling tongue. Silence reigned, and the livid blue hand lay motionless. It moved slightly, and the company sighed with relief and raised their eyes. Lazarus, risen from the dead, was looking straight at them, embracing all with one glance, heavy and terrible.
This happened on the sixth day after Lazarus had risen from the grave. Since then many felt that his gaze held eternity. Those forever immortalized by it could not explain the transcendence that affected them with his presence. He appeared plain and simple, as one with nothing to hide nor any inclination to tell.
“So you will not tell us, Lazarus, what you saw There?” Peter repeated for the third time.
But now his voice was dull, and a dead, grey weariness looked stupidly from out his eyes. The face of John looked sternly this time at Peter, letting him know that it was time for him to stop and to leave.
And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the Lazarus’ table: the dogs came and licked his sores. Luke 16:21
Soon the Passover crowds left and Lazarus was left to himself. John visited Lazarus, though no friends or family remained with him, only the great desert, enfolding the Holy City.
One after the other went away, even his sisters, Mary and Martha. For a while Martha did not want to leave him, for she didn’t know who would nurse him or take care of him; and she cried and prayed. But one night, when the wind was roaming about the desert, and the rustling cypress trees were bending over the roof, she dressed herself quietly, and without comment went away. Lazarus probably heard how the door was slammed – it had not shut properly and the wind kept knocking it continually against the post – but he did not rise, did not go out, did not try to find out the reason why she left. And the whole night until the morning the cypress trees hissed over his head, and the door swung to and fro, allowing the cold, dry desert to enter his dwelling.
Since he did little for himself, he would probably have starved had it not been for John and his neighbors who brought food to him. Children also brought it to him. They did not fear him, neither did they laugh at him in the innocent cruelty in which children often laugh at unfortunates. They were indifferent towards him, and Lazarus showed the same indifference to them. Though he desired to thank them for their kindness.
Each evening as the sun sank low, a flat purple-red disc descending to the earth, Lazarus walked out into the desert. He strode straight toward the sun, purposeful yet unhurried, as though intent on reaching it. After following the sunset path as far as his mind would go – to that inner heaven only he came to know – Lazarus turned back. With each new day he set forth again, tireless in his ritual.
There were people living far away who never saw Lazarus and only heard of him. Some of them came to him as he walked towards the sun and entered into conversation with him. At that time his appearance had changed for the better and was not so frightful. The visitors were always skeptical of Lazarus, but no one returned the same as he came.
Most didn’t speak about their experience with Lazarus, but those who did described the change that came over them as something like this:
“As I walked, the material world faded behind me, all its visible objects growing empty, weightless and transparent as shadows. They dissolved until only dark light remained, absolute yet comforting, like a mother’s embrace enfolding all creation.
My earthly form lost coherence within this peaceful walk, its unity unraveling into weightless particles. I became one with the infinite, all of me melding into pure conscious awareness.
Time itself disappeared, beginnings and endings becoming a single eternal now.
The emptiness of my soul was filled without limits. Where once I felt solitary, now I understood I had never been apart from the fabric of creation. I became a part of Lazarus’ eternal.
I surrendered to it utterly, filled with wordless peace.”
Much more could probably have been told by those who did not want to talk, and who lived and died in silence.
Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was,
whom Jesus had raised from the dead.
So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served,
and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at the table.
At that time there lived in Rome a man, the treasurer of the disciples, named Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. He was also a sculptor and out of clay, marble and bronze he created forms of gods and men of such beauty that this beauty was proclaimed immortal. But he himself was not satisfied and said there was a supreme beauty that he had not as yet attained.
He was a descendant of an ancient race of noble men, had a good wife and children, and except in this one respect, lacked for nothing.
When the rumor about Lazarus reached him, he consulted his wife and friends and decided to make the long voyage to Judea, in order that he might look upon the man miraculously raised from the dead.
It was at the time of the Passover and he knew Jesus would also be there. He felt lonely in those days, unsatisfied with life, afraid of death and hoped on the way to renew his jaded energies.
He had meditated much upon death. He did not like it, nor did he like those who tried to harmonize it with life. On this side, beautiful life; on the other, mysterious death, he reasoned, and no better lot could befall a man than to live – to enjoy life and the beauty of living. Even though he did not enjoy it himself. He was going to convince Lazarus of the truth of this view and to return his soul to life even as his body had been returned. This task did not appear impossible, for the reports about Lazarus, harmless and transcendent as they were, did not tell the whole truth about him, but only carried vague insight.
Lazarus was rising from his place at the table, preparing to follow the sunset path, when Judas came to the door that evening. Jesus, John and Martha were also gathered there.
Lazarus saw a proud face, though strained with an unnamed burden. This man had status and blessings – yet lacked something vital. Judas seemed on edge, intent on persuading others towards a change that he wanted in himself. As Lazarus took in the sight, Jesus closed his eyes as though in pain. John beckoned both to come back and sit.
Lowering his gaze, Lazarus sank wearily back to his seat.
“It is true you are not beautiful, my poor Lazarus,” said the Roman Judas quietly, toying with a gold chain. “Will you allow me to stay over tonight? It grows late and I’ve nowhere else to go.”
Nobody had ever asked Lazarus to stay the night.
“I have no bed,” he said.
“I am somewhat of a warrior and can sleep sitting,” replied the Roman Judas.
“I suppose you have some wine?”
“I have no wine.”
The Roman Judas laughed.
“Now I understand why you are so gloomy and why you do not like your second life. No wine? Well, we shall do without.”
“Come,” said Lazarus, “you are my guest.” And they went into the house as the long shadows of evening fell upon the earth…
Judas awoke the next morning to find Lazarus, Martha, and the Master sitting together, their gaze turned upward, silent.
Martha had gifted Jesus a vessel of nard, a rare perfumed ointment, before Judas arrived. Jesus was massaging some into his cracked, travel-weary feet.
“Martha, wasn’t that ointment expensive?” Judas remarked. “It might have been sold, money given to aid the poor.”
At this, Lazarus sat very still, his eyes going to Martha. John’s brow furrowed, a scowl towards Judas forming.
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And they were amazed at him. Mark 12:17
After Judas left and returned home, news arrived shortly thereafter that Lazarus was summoned to Rome, by the great Julius Caesar Augustus, also known as Octavian, the founder of the Roman Empire.
John helped dress Lazarus in simple, poor garb – not quite rags, but far from the finest, fitting for his ordination of this interim before his second death. John alone accompanied Lazarus as they passed along desert roads. His entire native land cursed the name of Lazarus, the man miraculously brought to life, and the people scattered at the mere report of his horrible approach. The trumpeters blew lonely blasts, and only the desert answered with silence.
Then they carried him across the sea on the saddest and most gorgeous ship that was ever mirrored in the azure waves of the Mediterranean. There were many people aboard, but the ship was silent and still as a coffin, and the water seemed to moan as it parted before the short, curved wake. Lazarus sat lonely, baring his head to the sun, and listening in silence to the splashing of the water. Further away the seamen and the ambassadors gathered like a crowd of distressed shadows. If a thunderstorm had happened to burst upon them at that time or the wind had overwhelmed the red sails, the ship would probably have perished, for none of those who were on her had strength or desire enough to fight for life.
Having docked, reluctantly, Lazarus set foot on the streets of the Eternal City, as though all its riches, all the majesty of its gigantic edifices, all the luster and beauty and music of refined life had no meaning.
Who dared to be sad in Rome?
But Lazarus wasn’t sad.
He was untouched by the magnificence of the city, not upset by the vanity or luxury, just stoically indifferent; as though he saw no contrast between his ruined house at the edge of the desert and the solid, beautiful palaces of stone. Under his feet the hard marble of the floor took on the semblance of the moving sands of the desert, and to his eyes the throngs of expensively dressed, haughty men and women were as unreal as the emptiness of the air. They looked not into his face as he passed by, fearing to come under the awful bane of his eyes; but when the sound of his heavy steps announced that he had passed, heads were lifted, and eyes examined with timid curiosity the figure of the tall, slightly stooping old man, as he slowly passed into the heart of the imperial palace. If death itself had appeared men would not have feared it so much; for hitherto death had been known to the dead only, and life to the living only, and between these two there had been no bridge. But this strange being knew death, and that knowledge of his was felt to be mysterious and cursed.
“He will kill our great, divine Augustus,” men cried with horror, and they hurled curses after him. Slowly and stoically he passed them by, penetrating ever deeper into the palace.
Caesar knew already who Lazarus was and was prepared to meet him. He was a man known for his courage; one who felt his power was invincible, and in the fateful encounter with the man “wonderfully raised from the dead” he refused to lean on other men’s weak help. Man to man, face to face, he met Lazarus.
“Do not fix your gaze on me, Lazarus,” he commanded. “I have heard that your head is like the head of Medusa, and turns into stone all upon whom you look. But I should like to have a close look at you, and to talk to you before I turn into stone,” he added in a spirit of playfulness that concealed his real insecurity.
Approaching him, he examined closely Lazarus’ face and his strange festive clothes. Though his eyes were sharp and keen, he was deceived by the skillful counterfeit.
“Well, your appearance is not terrible. But all the worse for men, when the terrible takes on such a pleasant appearance. Now let us talk.”
Augustus sat down, and as much by glance as by words began the discussion. “Why did you not salute me when you entered?”
Lazarus answered indifferently: “I did not know it was necessary.”
“You are a Christian?”
“No, I am a human.”
Augustus nodded approvingly. “That is good. I do not like the Christians. They shake the tree of life, forbidding it to bear fruit, and they scatter to the wind its fragrant blossoms. But who are you?”
With some effort Lazarus answered: “I was dead.”
“I heard about that. What was it like there?”
Lazarus did not respond to this question.
“Listen to me, stranger,” said the Emperor sharply, giving expression to what had been in his mind before. “My empire is an empire of the living; my people are a people of the living and not of the dead. You are superfluous here. I do not know who you are, I do not know what you have seen There, but if you lie, I hate your lies, and if you tell the truth, I hate your truth. In my heart I feel the pulse of life; in my hands I feel power, and my proud thoughts, like eagles, fly through space. Behind my back, under the protection of my authority, under the shadow of the laws I have created, men live and work and rejoice. Do you hear this divine harmony of life? Do you hear the war cry that men hurl into the face of the future, challenging it to strife?”
Augustus extended his arms reverently and solemnly cried out: “Blessed art thou, Great Divine Life!”
But Lazarus was silent, and the Emperor continued more severely: “You are not wanted here. Pitiful remnant, half devoured of death, you fill men with distress and aversion to life. You gnaw away at the full seed of joy, exuding the slime of despair and sorrow and I shall condemn you to death as a blasphemer. But first I want to look into your eyes.”
“Look at me, Lazarus!”
At first a friendly gaze met Augustus, gentle and alluring. It promised not horror but quiet rest – the Infinite dwelling there as a tender friend, a compassionate mother.
“It pains me,” whispered the Emperor, growing pale, “Yet look, Lazarus – look!”
The gates of eternity opened, cold infinity pouring through — endless emptiness and gloom, swallowing the daylight. Augustus’ pain ceased as icy oblivion took his heart.
“Look at me!” he cried, staggering…
Time halted, Beginning and End collided. Augustus’ throne crumbled and vanished, Rome falling silently into rubble, phantom empires disappearing into colorful worlds of Eternity…
“Enough!” commanded the fading Emperor, compulsive indifference taking his voice. His limbs fell limp, his eyes drooped.
“You have killed me, Lazarus,” he muttered, slipping into unconsciousness.
These words of despair saved him. He thought of the people, whose shield he was destined to be, and a sharp, redeeming pang pierced his dull heart. He thought of them doomed to perish, and he was filled with anguish. The Roman people, his people, appeared as fragile vessels with life-agitated blood, and hearts that knew both sorrow and great joy. – And he thought of them with tenderness.
And so thinking and feeling, inclining the scales now to the side of life, now to the side of death, he slowly returned to life, to find in its suffering and joy a refuge from the gloom, emptiness and fear of the Infinite.
“No, you did not kill me, Lazarus,” Ceaser said firmly. “But I will kill you. Go!”
Evening came and divine Augustus partook of food and drink with great joy. But there were moments when his raised arm would remain suspended in the air, and the light of his shining, eager eyes were dimmed. It seemed as if an icy wave of horror washed against his feet. He was vanquished but not killed, and coldly awaited his doom, like a black shadow. His nights were haunted by horror, but the bright days still brought him the joys, as well as the sorrows, of life.
Next day, by order of the Emperor, they burned out Lazarus’ eyes with hot irons and sent him home. Even Augustus dared not kill him.
Lazarus returned to the desert and the desert received him as an old friend reuinted. Again he sat on the stone with matted beard uplifted; and two black holes, where the eyes had once been, looked dull and horrible at the sky. In the distance the Holy City surged and roared restlessly, but near him all was deserted and still.
Each evening as the crimson sun swelled larger toward the west, Lazarus strode after the sunset path with purpose. While others stumbled, he walked on steadily, knowing the way. His outstretched arms drew more companions seeking healing – some blind or lame – yet his strong form served to guide them. Backlit against the red sky, his silhouette evoked a welcoming cross, urging all travelers ever homeward.
Though without sight, Lazarus stayed near Jesus those final days in Jerusalem. He took bread at their last meal, dipping it into bitter herbs, his blind eyes still finding fellowship there.
Lazarus heard Jesus’ final agonized breath on the cross, the haunting decree: “Behold your mother.” He and John supported Mary’s arms, helping her home.
When the tomb lay empty, Lazarus ran arm in arm with Peter through hills and valleys towards the tomb. The disappeared Jesus stirred no surprise in one who’d already emerged from death’s realm before. But how had the Master conquered the great divide this time?
In the months that followed, John guided sightless Lazarus through Jerusalem’s chaotic streets. Lazarus eventually left the restless city to find desert peace again.
One evening Lazarus set out toward the sunset path but did not return. Some say Jesus came back to bring him home. Others whisper Caesar returned for a final revenge. But none can confirm what befell him.
Thus ended the second life of Lazarus, the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.”
Adapted from LEONID ANDREYEV’s