38Jesus, again deeply moved, went to the tomb. It was a cave, with a stone placed against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, ‘Sir, by now there will be a stench; he has been there four days.’………..41Then they removed the stone………43Then he raised his voice in a great cry: ‘Lazarus, come out.’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with linen bandages, his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said, ‘Loose him; let him go.’
John 11: 38-39, 41, 43-44 – Revised English Bible
In recent months, I’ve heard and read a number of people speculating about what’s going wrong in the Church of England. Several comments intrigued me, because they suggested that the Church at its most senior level has abandoned and rejected the ‘supernatural’ elements of God, as they’re perceived to be at odds with how people now view the world, ie that supernatural events are counter-scientific and that view drives people away from God.
This raises the massive issue of how we should view the miracles in the Bible; it’s a challenge to all who want to believe and it’s a subject that I’m often asked about.
I’ve never been comfortable with reading the Bible literally; historically, this is a modern phenomenon. But I’m equally troubled by the suggestion that God cannot perform miracles. I’ve written before that we need to accept doubt, if we’re to accept Christianity. We certainly need to accept paradoxes, and chief among them is that Christ is fully human and fully divine at the same time. It’s a basic anchor of our faith. If Christ is fully divine without any humanity, then surely he would have been aware that he would rise again on the third day and the cross would have held no fear for him? Personally, knowing that God suffers alongside us is an important part of my faith. If Christ is not ‘one of us’ in any sense at all, I fear he becomes more distant. But if Christ is fully human without being divine, then any idea of the Holy Trinity falls away, and with it goes most of our faith.
It’s partly as a result of struggling with these issues over years, that I’ve reached a position on the subject of the miracles with which I’m now comfortable. My position, which is shared by a number of biblical scholars, is that I’m happy to see the miracles as true historical events, but only if we’re prepared to look for the ‘more than literal meaning’ at the same time. And there’s no better example of this than the story of the ‘Raising of Lazarus’ in John 11, when Jesus brings his friend Lazarus back from the dead, four days after his death.
I’m hugely indebted to the ‘St John’s Bible’ (https://saintjohnsbible.org/) for my current understanding of this story. More than 25 years ago, I met Donald Jackson, who’s been a friend ever since. Donald told me that he was a professional calligrapher (I was aghast, as I’d never met one before!) and he mentioned that one day he hoped to produce a modern version of the Bible in English, but inscribed on vellum, using traditional skills that go back centuries and including ‘illuminations’ to interpret the stories. The project finally went ahead, between 1998 and 2012, after Donald accepted a commission from St John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Donald’s work has had a major impact on my faith, for which I shall always be grateful. (I should mention in passing that a great deal of Donald’s recent efforts have been expended in creating a full scale printed version of the original, which is an astounding example of what can now be achieved by advanced modern printing processes. See https://heritage.saintjohnsbible.org/ for more details.)
The picture shown above was painted by Donald and depicts the story of the raising of Lazarus, from St John’s Gospel, Chapter 11. Because you may be viewing this blog post on a small screen, I feel the need to describe what you’re looking at, as it may not be obvious.
Firstly, we’re inside the tomb with Lazarus. He’s the dark figure in the cloak with his back to us. We’re both looking ahead, out of the tomb. Just to Lazarus’s left there’s a Death’s Head Hawkmoth, that symbol of death in popular culture, which also has associations with evil. Around Lazarus are his grave clothes. His figure is difficult to make out, because it’s totally surrounded with darkness and the only light that’s visible is coming from his (and our) front. We can see the round hole of the entry to the tomb, where the stone has just been rolled away, and framed in that circular entrance to the tomb is the tiny standing figure of Jesus, with above him a shaft of golden sunlight which seems to come from heaven and which surrounds his body.
Donald is, very challengingly, inviting us to see ourselves inside the tomb with Lazarus – albeit even deeper into the tomb than Lazarus is.
We’re being encouraged to reflect on the ways in which we’re so often entombed in our own lives. We’re not only entombed by the more obvious things like jobs and relationships that have not met our expectations, but we’re also entombed by our own faults, mistakes, broken relationships, appetites, addictions and failings. We, too, find ourselves often in darkness, like Lazarus in the picture. We’re easily able to imagine the situation of the second before the stone was rolled away, when we’d be sitting, with Lazarus, in pitch darkness, unable to grope our way forward in our own lives, unable to see with any clarity what we need to do to liberate ourselves from our own self-created tombs. We, too, are often surrounded by things which emphasise our imprisonment; our modern world seems so much to revolve around the acquisition of objects, that it’s easy to miss that they can come to represent our imprisonment. The acquisition that once offered such promise, that was so important to our plans and happiness, now simply adorns our tombs, as the Death’s Head Hawkmoth and the grave clothes do in the picture.
We, too, like Lazarus in the picture, often feel unable to do anything to lift our own darkness. We can only sit, maybe gazing at the exit to our tomb, but unable to move towards it in the darkness, let alone roll away the stone that will result in our liberation.
If we look at the story of Lazarus as a historical event, we can so easily miss the fact that this story challenges us to look and see how it might be relevant to us, personally and individually, here and now.
The enduring message of Christianity, and of the painting, is that Christ is waiting to break into our lives. He holds the power to roll away our stones and begin to let the light into our lives. And on the other side of the stone, before it’s rolled away, Christ sees us in his mind’s eye and grieves after us, as he does in the gospel story.
The scale of the figure of Jesus in the painting is hugely important. For so many of us, Jesus seems so far off, so tiny, so hopelessly unable to influence our lives for the better. And yet we have in front of our eyes this pinpoint of light that’s the first clue to our liberation. In the picture, Lazarus is still sitting. He can see Jesus bathed in sunlight, and he’s near enough to hear Jesus’s command to ‘come out’. But he’s not yet moved towards Jesus.
Parts of Lazarus’s grave clothes are strewn about him and their tentacles reach out towards us, where we’re sitting just behind him.
When Lazarus finally summons the courage to leave his own tomb, St John tells us that his hands and feet are still bound with strips of cloth, and his face is wrapped in a cloth (a reminder, perhaps of how face masks have helped to ‘entomb’ us in the last two years?) And in the story, Jesus says to those who are nearby ‘Unbind him and let him go’. The challenge to us is whether we’re strong enough to allow Christ’s light in and whether we’ll allow him to unbind us. He’s calling us into his embrace; all we have to do is take the first step. But are we strong enough to break loose?
Are we prepared to allow Christ to raise us from our own self-imposed deaths?
January in the northern hemisphere is a difficult month for many people; days remain cold and dark, with spring seemingly still far off and Christmas a distant memory. Donald’s painting seems to fit our dark mood, underlining as it does, our helplessness and the fact that we are so often stuck in a dark cave of our own making.
But the message of Donald’s brilliant painting is one of hope; hope that we can break loose, if only we’re brave enough to answer when Jesus calls to us to come out.
Heavenly Father, grant us the strength to break out of our own self-imposed tombs and reach for the light that is your Son, Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen