March 4, 2008

the raising of lazarus: a zombie story?

Night of the Living Dead (1968)Juan de FlandesWhy do so many of us watch zombie films? I remember the first time I saw Night of the Living Dead. It was much scarier than the Halloween movies. Maybe it has something to do with the idea that the zombies “won’t stay dead”.

When I read the story of the Raising of Lazarus, I can’t help but get goose bumps; the hair even raises on the back of my neck. It really is a spooky story and like a good horror film, it both fascinates and repels me.

Indeed, John 11:1-45 reminds me more of a zombie film than a typical miracle story. Jesus’ behavior is not only downright insensitive it verges on diabolical. First, Jesus, who cured others, refuses to cure Lazarus when he hears that his close friend is ill. He insists that Lazarus must suffer this fate so that the disciples will believe. The Mummy (1932)

Then, once he realizes that Lazarus is dead, he takes his time getting to Bethany, actually letting Lazarus rot in the tomb for four days. Finally when he does arrive, Jesus refuses to go to the tomb and mourn with the relatives and acts disgusted by their outpourings of grief. The story has becomes so morbid at this point, that when Jesus actually does raise Lazarus from the dead, I can’t help but picture Lazarus as some sort of zombie or mummy from one of those horror films made in the thirties.Plugging their noses at Lazarus' tomb

Is this the impression that John, the author, intended? I doubt it. What I do know is that this story stirs up all our preconceptions regarding life and death. For me, it exposes the power these perceptions have over our understanding of reality: our approach to  life, our relationship to the entire creation seem subject to it. That is why, when Jesus tells the people to take away the stone covering Lazarus’ tomb, Martha, the sister of Lazarus objects, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” She objects to the restoration of her own brother, she wants to prevent the liberation of her loved one.

zombie comicAnd truth be told, I can’t help but perceive Lazarus as a zombie too, because I like Mary assume he is dead and rotting in the tomb. Death is so repugnant to us that our immediate reaction is to keep it sealed up as tightly as possible.

Jesus, however, is not concerned with the stench. On the contrary, he is angered by all the mourning and weeping at Lazarus’ tomb. After all the time they have spent with Jesus, Mary and Martha still allow death to control their perception of reality. In fact, by mourning for Lazarus, all those gathered for the funeral, have unwittingly sealed his fate, actually condemning him to oblivion. Placing him in the tomb is in effect an act of expulsion from the land of the living.

Not realizing how warped our perception can be, we’re tempted to side with Mary and Martha who are perturbed that Jesus didn’t saveTraditional Site of Lazarus’ Tomb Lazarus from this fate, assuming that if Jesus really loved him, he wouldn’t have let Lazarus die.

When Jesus challenges this thinking, Martha assumes she understands: “I believe in the resurrection at the end of the age.” But this too is a denial of life in the here and now.

Jesus, however, never once refers to Lazarus as dead. From the very beginning he claims that Lazarus is asleep and will be awakened. In fact when Jesus sees that they have gone ahead and sealed Lazarus in a tomb, it is then that Jesus weeps. This is not the fate necessarily intended for us.

Since we, however, live our lives in fear of death, always trying to keep our distance from it, weimage0011.jpg participate in a world order which may even perceive the raising of the dead as a threat to its security. This is why, when the authorities hear that Jesus has raised Lazarus from the tomb, they decide to kill him.

For instance in the 70s and 80s thousands of people who in any way challenged the regimes of certain South American dictators were kidnapped and killed, and their bodies disposed of, eliminating all evidence of their existence. By removing all trace of them from the land of living, they were silenced forever and no longer a threat to those in power. Family members of the “disappeared” were often prevented from even mentioning their names. [Link to Wikipedia on Forced Disappearance]

In this story, however, Jesus, not only refuses to participate in Lazarus’ disappearance, he challenges our preconceptions concerning life and death. We all assume that stinking bodies must be left to rot. Indeed, whenever we seal a dead body up in a tomb, we live in fear that somehow it may not stay put. Movies like Night of the Living Dead vividly express our fear of those we have intentionally or unintentionally excluded from the land of the living.

No wonder Jesus says to the mourners, “Unbind him and let him go!” In that moment Jesus frees not only Lazarus, but all of us from the control that this fear has over our lives. He does this not by rescuing us from the grip of death, because that would maintain death as an independent reality still to be feared, and would actually increase its power. Instead he cries with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” He awakens Lazarus from his zombie thralldom. The forcefulness of his cry would awaken anyone from the tomb, but maybe its not just Lazarus who needs awakening. What about those who put him there in the first place?

zombies stumbling in the nightWe see this earlier in the story, when the disciples try to prevent Jesus from returning to Judea for the funeral because there are people out to kill him, he replies, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” As long as we live our lives in fear of the dead, WE will stumble around like zombies in the night.

the empty tomb

Jesus invites us to join him in a life free from perceptions of death which bind us this way, which lead us to deny the reality of those who are no longer living. When he says:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Jesus turns our  relationship to the living and the dead on its head. So that all the zombies, finally revealed as products of a world which lives in fear of the dead, are transfigured into the beloved brothers and sisters, whose reality we no longer deny.  -Sue Wright

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