The Raising of Lazarus

By Rudolf Steiner

From Christianity as Mystical Fact

Chapter 7

There is no doubt that among the "miracles" attributed to Jesus very special importance must be attached to the raising of Lazarus at Bethany. Everything points to assigning a prominent position in the New Testament to what the Evangelist relates. One must recall that it is related only by John, who claims a very definite interpretation for his Gospel by the significant words with which it opens. John begins with the sentences:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a God . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, a glory of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth."

Anyone who places such words at the beginning of his exposition is plainly indicating that he wishes it to be interpreted in an especially profound sense. Anyone who approaches it with merely intellectual explanations, or otherwise in a superficial way, is like the person who thinks that Othello really murders Desdemona on the stage. Then what does John wish to convey by his introductory words? He clearly states that he is speaking of something eternal, which existed at the very beginning. He relates facts, but they should not be accepted as the kind of facts which eye and ear consider, and upon which logical reason exercises its art. Behind these facts he conceals the Word (Logos) which exists in the cosmic spirit. For him these facts are the medium through which a higher meaning is manifested. And therefore we may assume that in the raising of a man from the dead, a fact which offers the greatest difficulties to the eye, ear and logical reason, is concealed the deepest meaning of all.

Something further must be added here. In his Life of Jesus Renan indicated that the raising of Lazarus undoubtedly had a decisive influence on the end of Jesus' life. From the standpoint Renan takes, such a thought appears untenable. The belief was being circulated among the people that Jesus had raised a man from the dead; why should this fact appear so dangerous to his opponents that they asked the decisive question: Can Jesus and Judaism live side by side? It will not do to assert with Renan:

"The other miracles of Jesus were passing events, repeated in good faith and exaggerated by popular report; they were thought no more of after they had happened. But this one was a real event, publicly known, by means of which it was sought to silence the Pharisees. All the enemies of Jesus were angered by the sensation it caused. It is related that they tried to kill Lazarus."

It is incomprehensible why this should be so if Renan was right in his belief that all that occurred at Bethany was a mock scene intended to strengthen belief in Jesus.

"Perhaps Lazarus, still pale from his illness, had himself wrapped in a shroud and laid in the family tomb. These tombs were large rooms hewn out of the rock and entered by a square opening, closed by an immense stone slab. Martha and Mary hurried to meet Jesus and brought him to the tomb before he entered Bethany. The painful emotion felt by Jesus at the tomb of the friend he believed dead (John 11:33-38) might be taken by those present for the agitation and tremors which usually accompanied miracles. It was a popular belief indeed that the divine virtue in a man was epileptic and convulsive in character. To continue the above hypothesis, Jesus wished to see once more the man he had loved, and when the stone had been rolled away, Lazarus came forth in his shroud, his head bound with a napkin. Naturally, this phenomenon was regarded by everyone as a resurrection. Faith knows no other law than what it considers to be true."

Does not such an explanation appear absolutely naive when Renan adds the following: "Certain indications indeed seem to suggest that causes arising in Bethany helped to hasten Jesus' death"? A true feeling undoubtedly underlies this last statement by Renan. But with the means at his disposal, Renan cannot explain or justify this feeling.

Something of quite special importance must have been done by Jesus at Bethany to justify the following words in reference to it: "Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, What are we to do? For this man performs many signs." (John 11:47) Renan also surmises something special: "It must be acknowledged that John's account is essentially different from the reports of miracles of which the Synoptists are full, and which are the fruit of popular imagination. Let us add that John is the only Evangelist with accurate knowledge of the relationship of Jesus with the family at Bethany, and that it would be incomprehensible how a creation of the popular mind could have been inserted in the frame of such personal reminiscences. Therefore it is probable that the miracle in question was not among the entirely legendary ones for which no one is responsible. In other words, I think that something happened at Bethany which was looked upon as a resurrection."

Does not this really mean that something happened at Bethany which Renan cannot explain? He entrenches himself behind the words: "At this distance of time, and with only one text bearing obvious traces of subsequent additions, it is impossible to decide whether, in the present case, all is fiction, or whether a real incident at Bethany served as a basis for the rumor." Are we not dealing here with something which need only be read in the right way to be truly understood? Then perhaps we should stop speaking of fiction.

It must be admitted that the whole account in John's Gospel is wrapped in a veil of mystery. To gain insight into this we need only demonstrate one point. If the report is to be taken in a literal, physical sense, how are we to understand these words of Jesus: "This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby."? (John 11:4). This is the customary translation of the words, but the situation would be better realized if we were to translate them thus, as would be correct according to the Greek also: "for the manifestation (revelation) of God, that the Son of God might be revealed thereby." And what do these other words mean: Jesus says, "I am the resurrection and the life: he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live"? (John 11:25) It would be trivial to believe that Jesus wished to say that Lazarus had become ill only in order that Jesus might demonstrate his skill. And it would be a further triviality to think that Jesus meant to assert that belief in him restores life to someone who is dead in the ordinary sense of the word. For what would be remarkable about a person raised from the dead, if after his resurrection he was the same as before death? Indeed, what would be the sense of describing the life of such a person in the words: "I am the resurrection and the life"?

The words of Jesus at once come to life and make sense when we understand them as the expression of a spiritual occurrence, to be taken literally as they stand in the text. Jesus actually says that he is the resurrection that has happened to Lazarus, and that he is the life that Lazarus is living. Let us take literally what the Gospel of John says Jesus is. He is the "Word that became flesh." He is the eternal that existed in the beginning. If he is really the resurrection, then the "eternal, primordial" has risen again in Lazarus. We are dealing therefore with the resurrection of the eternal Logos. And this Logos, or Word, is the life to which Lazarus has been awakened. It involves a "sickness." But it is not a sickness leading to death, but to the "glory of God," that is, to the revelation of God. If the "eternal Logos" has risen again in Lazarus, then in truth the whole process serves to make God manifest in Lazarus. For through the whole process Lazarus has become another man. The "Word," the Spirit, did not live in him before; now this Spirit lives in him. This Spirit has been born in him. It is in a sense true that every birth is accompanied by an illness: the birth pangs of the mother. But this illness does not lead to death, but to new life. That part of Lazarus becomes ill from which the "new man," permeated by the Word, is born.

Where is the tomb from which the Word is born? To answer this question we need only remember Plato, who calls man's body the tomb of the soul. And we need only recall that Plato also speaks of a kind of resurrection when he refers to the coming to life of the spiritual world in the body. What Plato calls the spiritual soul, John calls the Word. And for him Christ is the Word. Plato might have said, Whoever becomes spiritual has caused the divine to rise from the tomb of his body. And for John this resurrection is what happened through the Life of Jesus. It is no wonder then that he causes Jesus to say, "I am the resurrection."

There can be no doubt that the event at Bethany was an awakening in a spiritual sense. Lazarus became a different person. He was raised to a life of which the Eternal Logos proclaims: I am this life. What, then, took place in Lazarus? The Spirit came to life within him. He partook of the life which is eternal. We need only express his experience of resurrection in the words of those who were initiated into the Mysteries, and at once the meaning becomes clear. What does Plutarch say about the purpose of the Mysteries? They were designed to enable the soul to withdraw from bodily life and unite with the gods. Schelling describes the feelings of an initiate thus: "The initiate, through the rites which he received, became a link in the magic chain; he himself became a Cabeiri. He was received into the indestructible relationship, joining the army of the higher gods, as ancient inscriptions express it." (Schelling, Philosophie der Offenbarung, Philosophy of Revelation) And the change that took place in the life of a person who had received the rites of the Mysteries cannot be more significantly described than in the words spoken by Aedesius to his disciple, the Emperor Constantine: "If one day you should partake in the Mysteries, you will feel ashamed of having been born merely as a man."

Let us saturate our souls with such feelings, and then we shall gain the right relationship to what happened at Bethany. We shall then experience something quite special in the narrative of John. A certainty will dawn upon us which no logical interpretation, no attempt at rational explanation, can give. A mystery in the true sense of the word stands before us. Into Lazarus the "eternal Word" has entered. In the language of the Mysteries, he became an initiate. Thus the event related to us must be an act of initiation.

Let us now place the whole event before ourselves as an initiation. Jesus loved Lazarus (John 11:36). This indicates no ordinary affection. The latter would be contrary to the spirit of John's Gospel, according to which Jesus is the Word. Jesus loved Lazarus because he found him ready for the awakening of the Word within him. Jesus was connected with the family at Bethany. This simply means that Jesus had prepared everything in that family for the great final act of the drama: the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus was the pupil of Jesus. He was a pupil of such caliber that Jesus could be quite certain that the awakening would be accomplished in him.

The final act of the drama of awakening was a symbolic action revealing the Spirit. The person involved in it not only had to understand the words, "Die and come to life," he had to fulfill them himself by a spiritually real action. His earthly part, of which his higher being in the sense of the Mysteries must be ashamed, had to be laid aside. The earthly part had to die a symbolically real death. The fact that his body was then put into a comatose state for three days can only be regarded, in contrast to the immensity of the transformation of Lazarus�s life, as an external event to which a far more significant spiritual one corresponds. This act, however, was indeed also the experience which divided the life of the initiate into two parts. One who does not know from experience the deeper content of such acts cannot understand them. He can only appreciate them by means of a comparison. The substance of Shakespeare's Hamlet may be condensed into a few words. Anyone who learns these words can say in a certain sense that he knows the content of Hamlet. And intellectually he does. But someone who allows all the wealth of Shakespeare's drama to stream in upon him perceives Hamlet quite differently. The content of a life, which cannot be replaced by a mere description, has passed through his soul. The idea of Hamlet has become an artistic, personal experience within him. On a higher level a similar process is accomplished in man through the magical process of initiation. What he attains spiritually he lives through symbolically. The word "symbolically" is used here in the sense that while an outer event is really accomplished materially, at the same time it is a symbol. We are not dealing with an unreal, but with a real symbol. The earthly body has actually been dead for three days. From death comes forth the new life. This life has outlasted death. Man has acquired faith in the new life. This is what happened with Lazarus. Jesus had prepared him for the awakening. He experienced a symbolically real illness � an initiation, which after three days leads to a new life. �

Lazarus was ready to accomplish this act. He wrapped himself in the robe of the mystic. He enclosed himself in a condition of lifelessness which was at the same time a symbolic death. And when Jesus arrived, the three days had been fulfilled. "Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead one was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes, and said, 'Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.'" (John 11:41.) The Father had heard Jesus, for Lazarus had come to the final act of the great drama of knowledge. He had perceived how resurrection is attained; his initiation into the Mysteries was complete.

It was an initiation such as had been understood throughout the ages. It had been demonstrated by Jesus as the initiator. Union with the divine had always been represented in this manner.

In Lazarus Jesus accomplished the great miracle of the transformation of life in the sense of ancient traditions. Through this event Christianity is linked with the Mysteries. Lazarus had become an initiate through Christ Jesus himself. Thereby Lazarus had become able to rise into the higher worlds. He was at the same time both the first Christian initiate and the first to be initiated by Christ Jesus himself. Through his initiation he had become capable of perceiving that the "Word" which had come to life within him had become a man in Christ Jesus, and thus there stood before him in the person of his "awakener" the same who had been revealed within him spiritually.

From this point of view the following words of Jesus are significant: "And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me." (John 11:42) That is to say, it is a question of revealing that in Jesus the "Son of the Father" lives in such a way that when he awakens his own being in man, man becomes an initiate.

In this way Jesus made it plain that the meaning of life lay hidden in the Mysteries, and that they paved the way to this meaning. He is the living Word; in him was personified what had become ancient tradition. And John the Evangelist is justified in expressing this in the sentence: In him the Word became flesh. He rightly sees in Jesus an incarnated mystery. And because of this, John's Gospel is a mystery. In order to read it rightly we must bear in mind that the facts are spiritual facts. If a priest of an ancient order had written it, he would have described traditional rites. For John, these rites took the form of a person. They became the "Life of Jesus." Burckhardt, an eminent modern investigator of the Mysteries, in Die Zeit Konstantins, (The Times of Constantine), says that they are "matters about which we shall never be clear," but this is simply because he has not perceived the way to this clarity. If we examine the Gospel of John and behold in the sphere of pictorially physical reality the drama of cognition enacted by the ancients, we are looking upon the Mystery itself.

In the words "Lazarus, come forth," we can recognize the call by which the Egyptian priest-initiators summoned back to everyday life those who had subjected themselves to the processes of initiation, which withdrew them from the world that they might die to earthly things and gain a conviction of the reality of the eternal. But with these words Jesus had revealed the secret of the Mysteries. It is easy to understand that the Jews could not let such an act go unpunished, any more than the Greeks could have refrained from punishing Aeschylus, had he betrayed the secrets of the Mysteries. For Jesus the main point in the initiation of Lazarus was to represent before all "the people which stand by," an event which, according to ancient priestly wisdom, might be accomplished only in the secrecy of the Mysteries. The initiation of Lazarus was to prepare the way for the understanding of the Mystery of Golgotha. Previously only those who "saw" that is to say, who were initiated, were able to know something of what was achieved by initiation; but now insight into the secrets of higher worlds could also be gained by those who "have not seen and yet have believed."

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