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This week’s scripture is filled with contrasts and paradoxes. Jesus is the word, from the beginning, in whom is life. The light that shines invincibly in the darkness. (John 1:1-5) Yet here we see that the life he gives to Lazarus, is the very thing that leads to Jesus’ death sentence. This story is followed by John 11:45-54 which concludes with the narrative explanation “So from that day on [the ruling council of the chief priests and the Pharisees] planned to put Jesus to death.”
All of the miraculous signs of Jesus point to who he is and what he has come to give humanity. This is the seventh and final “sign” in John’s gospel. None of them are more closely related to the reality of resurrection life given to us in Christ than this story of Lazarus rising from the dead. As we’ve seen in our other stories in John, here too we encounter elements of comedy and confusion. The disciples think Lazarus is just asleep. Jesus lingers for another two days, rather than acting immediately upon the news of the illness of Lazarus and the demand for help from his sisters. Jesus weeps – the only time. Yet doesn’t he know or foresee the end of the story? Lazarus is bound in his burial shroud, yet it’s Jesus who the crowd tries to bind, begging him not to open the tomb for the stench will be unbearable.
This sign, the seventh and final one (and most “holy” – don’t forget the unique importance of the number 7 in the Jewish tradition) is pointed back to from John’s closing epilogue statement in John 20:30-31: “30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” It’s not just the signs, but the experience of Jesus as living and as life, despite his crucifixion and seeming defeat, that exegetes, explains, gives and invites to life.
In this first week of Lent, we observe the ancient church practice of imposing ashes as a sign of the cross on foreheads of worshippers on Ash Wednesday. While it might seem to be arcane, and a sign for those who “belong” on the inside, it’s, in fact, a sign pointing to this word of life – both in the scripture and the living word we believe is risen, active, (re)creating in the world. Like Lazarus, we’re often bound by the boxes into which we are put. How is this sign of life abundant and eternal a freeing word for us today?
Questions for the practice of Examen & Contemplation