Every three years the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is the well-known story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44). Center stage stand his sisters, Martha and Mary, and since the late sixth century and the writings of Saint Gregory the Great, Christians have seen them as representing the active and the contemplative lives. Over the millennia, less attention has gone to Lazarus, who makes his appearance briefly at the end of the story.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear (Sections 115-117) that just as there are two natures in Christ, fully human and fully divine, Scripture contains two senses, the literal and the spiritual, or to use other terms, the historical and the allegorical. Thus, we may take as literal, historical fact that Jesus did raise Lazarus from the dead. In a work of fiction, Lazarus would have a long speech describing the marvels of the afterlife.
However, in Saint Luke’s Gospel (16:19-31), Jesus uses the name of his reticent, respectable friend for a story about a scruffy beggar who hovers outside the front door of a wealthy man. It is the only one of Jesus’ parables where one of the characters has a name. The ironic contrast between the historical Lazarus of Bethany and the parable’s street person made the tale more memorable, and although the historical, resurrected Lazarus recounts nothing about what it was like being dead, Jesus reveals in that parable two other last things after death and judgment: Either our selfishness sends us to eternal isolation in hellfire, or our self-emptying leads us to eternal association with saints like Abraham.
In terms of Lenten penance, it is useful to look at what the story of Lazarus teaches us about becoming better Christians. For Benedictine monks, meditating on Lazarus can be part of the monastic vow of ongoing conversion. In particular, Lazarus teaches us about becoming better men, better father figures, and better friends of Jesus. If reflecting on Lazarus along those lines proves helpful to people outside the cloister, so much the better.
Monsignor Romano Guardini, in The Lord (1937), saw Lazarus as parallel to Saint Joseph. Guardini observed that in the Gospel, both men are silent. “There is something powerful in him,” Guardini said about Joseph, “a touch of that all-directing, quiet watchfulness of the Father in heaven.”
Silence takes hard work: We keep, cultivate, and maintain it, and when noise, the absence of silence, intrudes, we refer to silence as having been broken. Sometimes silence is mandatory, as during a written exam or during a monastic meal, but oftentimes more penitential than compulsory silence is obligatory conversation.
Saint Benedict was aware of the delusion that discussion is accomplishment. Chapter 6 of the Benedictine Rule is all about restraining one’s desire to speak, reining in what is deep down an infantile need for attention, but such self-restraint must never be abused, hiding behind silence as an excuse for not challenging error and injustice, or wielding silence as a weapon to snub others. Rather, outward silence reflects inner peace and the self-awareness that often it is best simply to listen.
Silent saints from the early first century may seem to be remote role models, so a contemporary hero may be more accessible. In his autobiography, When Do I Start? (1997), Karl Malden wrote about making the movie Patton (1970), in which he played General Omar Bradley. General Bradley served as a consultant to the film, and Malden worked closely with him to make sure he portrayed the great man accurately.
At one point they were going over the script, and Bradley noted a scene where Patton gets a blistering tongue-lashing from Bradley. “Is it really necessary?” he asked Malden. Malden asked what Bradley would do instead. Bradley replied, “I’d just look him in the eye and quietly, with all the intensity I could muster, tell him exactly what I wanted him to do. And he would do it.”
Malden asked why Patton would do what Bradley so quietly told him. Bradley smiled and said, “Because I’ve got one more star on my shoulder than he has.” Being a man involves learning to become serene and secure, having the quiet strength to know that, despite its dramatic appeal, when one is holding all the cards, it is childish weakness to fly into a narcissistic rage and lose one’s inner peace and self-control.
Along with the interior peace reflected in silence, Lazarus stands as a father figure. Like Saint Joseph, he was the head of a household. Disconcerting for our emulation, Joseph and Lazarus had unique domestic situations, but another modern personage can give us insight here, since human nature never changes.
Country singer Josh Turner has had hits with songs such as “Left Hand Man” and “Why Don’t We Just Dance,” robust and lyrical celebrations of a man’s love for his wife. He has also expressed himself in prose, and in his book of spiritual reflections, Man Stuff (2014), he wrote about teaching his young sons to pay attention, not only to what he is telling them, but also to the everyday wonders around them. “When you learn to pay attention to the simple things in life,” he wrote, “you get one step closer to paying attention to God’s will for you.” Being a good father relies on inner silence and on quiet, masculine strength that never confuses confidence with arrogance.
In addition to being an exemplar of virtue, of manly character and fatherhood, Lazarus was a friend of Jesus. Later in Saint John’s Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). It sounds like not much of a friendship, one friend ordering the other one around.
Consider another scenario: Someone of marginal acquaintance says to you something that is direct and crosses a boundary, a critical comment about getting your act together. At once our reaction is, “You don’t know me well enough to talk to me like that!” In contrast, a real friend can tell us, “You need to get squared away,” and we take it to heart.
Jesus commands Lazarus to come forth from the tomb. Jesus commands him, and us, to come out of our charity-free zone of solitary confinement, our being all wrapped up in ourselves, our death in sin, since, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law” (CCC 1855).
A profound influence on Saint Benedict was John Cassian, who in his Conferences (2:11:12) said that by commanding us Jesus is calling us from a good thing, being His servant, to a better thing, being His friend. Cassian noted that in our relationship with Christ, there are stages of development, a concept Saint Benedict summed up in the monastic vow of ongoing conversion. Ordinarily, the grace for such steady conversion flows through the sacrament of penance, to which a religious must make frequent, at least weekly, recourse.
That penitential process of growing closer to the Lord can be measured in one’s maturing in virtue, in the good qualities of father figures like Joseph and Lazarus. If we obey the command of Jesus, we come forth from self-absorbed and self-important entombment, sin that leads to everlasting death, and emerge into the light. We come back to life, and true life is being with Christ.