Eastern Christians have long celebrated the day before Palm Sunday as "The Saturday of Lazarus". Alexander Schmemann writes, "The joy that permeates and enlightens the service of Lazarus Saturday stresses one major theme: the forthcoming victory of Christ over Hades. "Hades" is the Biblical term for Death and its universal power, for inescapable darkness that swallows all life and with its shadow poisons the whole world. But now -- with Lazarus' resurrection -- 'death begins to tremble.' A decisive duel between Life and Death begins giving us the key to the entire liturgical mystery of Pascha. Already in the fourth century Lazarus' Saturday was called the 'announcement of Pascha'. For, indeed, it announces and anticipates the wonderful light and peace of the next -- The Great -- Saturday, the day of life-giving Tomb."
If one digs around in the U.S. Episcopal Church's "Lesser Feasts and Fasts - 2000," one finds provided on p. 57 a proper for a celebration of the Saturday of Lazarus (which actually may be used on any weekday of the Fifth Week of Lent):
2 Kings 4:18-21, 32-37
John 11: (1-7) 18-44
In my experience, beginning the liturgical observance of Holy Week with the joyful celebration of Lazarus Saturday can go a long way toward setting it in perspective. Even if no liturgical observance on the Saturday is possible in our parishes, we might each take some time on this day to read and reflect upon the above readings. A little imagination can bring out the social content, indeed the revolutionary implications, of seeing God's liberation of Lazarus as revelatory of the whole meaning of the Paschal liturgies.
In the story, Lazarus, as humanity, seems to me not so much "fallen" in the Augustinian and Calvinist sense, as enslaved, imprisoned, lacking the freedom to be fully alive as God intends. He is in need, not so much of having the law laid down to him, but of being freed from the chains with which the death-dealing powers have bound him.
Jesus comes to Lazarus, we are told, not as a stranger, but as a friend -- and Jesus and the Father are One. Holy Week, let us be clear, celebrates the liberating action of a God who is a friend to suffering humanity, a "lover of human beings", not a bloodthirsty tyrant out for punishment and revenge. At the sight of humanity's plight, God is moved, not to wrath, but to tears. "Jesus wept."
And Jesus acted.
Let him alone, the bystanders warn Jesus. "He stinks." And one can hear the chorus through the ages: "He's utterly depraved, he's intrinsically disordered, he's beyond help, nothing can be done, it's only natural."
But Jesus will have none of it. "Lazarus, come out!" he cries. A call to revolution, to personal and social transformation, a call to leave the squalid surroundings of the present and walk out freely into the light of God's New Day. Perhaps Lazarus, like us, may have been hesitant to accept such a call, for one can be at ease in a tomb, secure in the familiar embrace of one's winding sheets, comfortable with the clanking of the chains of one's slavery.
"Lazarus, come out!" And Lazarus, against all odds and against the best of advice, stands up and takes those first few difficult, staggering steps.
And then come those words that are, to me at least, among the most powerful in the whole of the Gospels, an encapsulation of the entire mission of those who would be followers of Christ: "Unbind him and let him go!"
I like to recall those three short sentences during all the liturgies of Holy Week, from the protest march of Palm Sunday through the Great Vigil of Easter and beyond: "Jesus wept." "Lazarus come out!" "Unbind him, and let him go."
They are at the heart of what the Paschal celebration celebrates, and at the heart of the mission to which we, with the newly baptised, will be sent:
Weep, this coming week, for humanity.
Call the people out of their tombs.
Unbind them, and let them go.
- -- Ted Mellor, Los Angeles, March 30, 2004