Christianity as Mystical Fact
VIII. The Lazarus Miracle
Amongst the miracles attributed to Jesus, very special importance must be attached to the raising of Lazarus at Bethany. Everything combines to assign a prominent position in the New Testament to that which is here related by the Evangelist. We must bear in mind that St. John alone relates it, the Evangelist who by the weighty words with which he opens his Gospel challenges a very definite interpretation of it.
St. John begins with these sentences: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a God... And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, a glory as of the ohly begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
One who introduces his narrative with words of that sort points clearly to his intention to be interPreted in a very deep sense. The man who approaches it with merely intellectual explanations, or otherwise In a superficial way, is like one who thinks that Othello really murders Desdemona on the stage. What is it, then, that St. John means by his introductory words? He says plainly that he is speaking of something Eternal, of something that existed at the beginning of things. He relates facts, but they are not to be taken as facts observed by the eye and ear, and upon which logical reason exercises its skill. He hides the Word, dwelling in cosmic spirit, behind the facts. For him the facts are the medium in which a higher meaning is expressed. And we may therefore assume that in the fact of a man being raised from the dead, a fact which offers the greatest difficulties to the eye, ear, and logical rea: son, the very deepest meaning lies concealed.
Another point must be taken into consideration. Renan in his Life of Jesus has pointed out that the raising of Lazarus undoubtedly had a decisive influence on the end of the life of Jesus. Such a thought appears impossible from the point of view Renan takes. For why should the spreading popular belief that Jesus had raised a man from the dead appear to his opponents so dangerous that they asked the question “Can Jesus and Judaism exist side by side?” It does not do to assert with Renan: “The other miracles of Jesus were passing events, repeated in good faith and exaggerated by popular report, and they were forgotten after they had happened. But this one was a real event, publicly known, and by means of which it was sought to silence the Pharisees. All the enemies of Jesus were exasperated by the sensation it caused. It is related that they sought to kill Lazarus.” It is incomprehensible why this should be so if Renan were right in his opinion that all that happened at Bethany was the staging of 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 grave. These tombs were large rooms hewn out of the rock and entered by a square opening that was closed by an immense slab. Martha and Mary hastened to meet Jesus and brought him to the grave before he had entered Bethany. The painful emotion felt by Jesus at the grave of the friend whom he believed to be dead (John XI, 33, 88) might be taken by those present for the agitation and tremors that were wont to accompany miracles. According to popular belief, divine power in @ man was like an epileptic and convulsive element. Continuing the above hypothesis, Jesus wished to see once more the man he had loved and, the stone having been rolled away, Lazarus came forth in his shroud, his head bound with a napkin. This apparition naturally was looked upon by every one as a resurrection. Faith knows no other law than that which it holds to be true.” Does not such an explanation appear positively naive when Renan adds the following opinion: “Everything seems to suggest that the miracle of Bethany materially contributed to hasten the death of Jesus”? Yet there is undoubtedly an accurate perception underlying this last assertion of Renan. But with the means at his disposal he is not able to interpret or justify his opinion.
Something of quite special importance must have been accomplished by Jesus at Bethany, if such words as the following are to be accounted for: “Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, ‘What do we? for this man doeth many miracles’” (John X1, 47) . Renan, too, conjectures something special: “It must be acknowledged,” he says, “that John's narrative is of an essentially different kind from the accounts of miracles of which the Synoptists are full and which are the outcome of popular imagination Let us add that John is the only Evangelist with accurate knowledge of the relations of Jesus with the family at Bethany, and that it would be incomprehensible that a creation of the popular mind could have occurred within the frame of such personal reminiscences. It is therefore probable that the miracle in question was not among the wholly legendary ones, for which no one is responsible. In other words, I think that something took place at Bethany which could pass as a resurrection.” Does not this really mean that Renan surmises the occurrence of something At Bethany which he 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 event that happened at Bethany served as the basis of the report that was spread abroad.” Might it not be that we have to do here with something of which we could arrive at a true understanding merely by reading the text in the right way? In that case, we should perhaps no longer speak of “fiction”.
It must be admitted that the whole narrative of this event in St. John’s Gospel is wrapped in a mysterious veil. To show this we need only mention one point. If the narrative is to be taken in the literal, physical sense, what meaning have 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.” This is the usual translation of the words, but the actual state of the case is better arrived at if they are translated, “for the revelation of God, that the Son of God might be manifested thereby.” This translation is also correct according to the Greek original. And what would these other words mean: “Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live”? (John XI, 4, 25.) It would be a triviality to think Jesus meant to say that Lazarus had only become ill in order that He — Jesus — might manifest His skill through him. And it would again be a triviality to think Jesus meant to assert that faith in Him brings to life again one who is dead in the ordinary sense. What would be remarkable about a person who has risen from the dead, if after his resurrection he were the same being he was before dying? Indeed, what would be the meaning of describing the life of such a person in the words: “I am the resurrection and the life”? Life and meaning at once permeate the words of Jesus if we understand them as the expression of a spiritual occurrence, and then, in a certain sense, even 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 Jesus is in St. John’s Gospel. He is “the Word that was made 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 have, therefore, to do with a resurrection of the Eternal Word, and this Word is the Life to which Lazarus has been raised. It is a case of illness, not one, however, leading to death but to the glory, that is, the manifestation, of God. If the Eternal Word has been resurrected in Lazarus, the whole event really serves to manifest God in Lazarus. For by means of the event Lazarus has become a different man. Previously the Word, or Spirit, did not live in him; now it does. The Spirit has been born in him. It is true that every birth is accompanied by illness, that of the mother; but the illness leads to new life, not to death. In Lazarus, that part of him becomes ill from which the new man, permeated by the Word, is born.
Where is the grave from which the Word is born? To answer this question we have only to remember Plato, who calls man’s body the tomb of the soul. And We have only to recall Plato’s speaking of a kind of resurrection when he alludes to the coming to life of the spiritual world in the body. What Plato calls the spiritual-soul, St. John denominates the Word. And for him, Christ is the Word. Plato might have said: One who becomes spiritual has caused something divine to rise out of the grave of his body. For St. John, that which took place through the life of Jesus Was that resurrection. It is not surprising, therefore, if he has Jesus say: “I am the resurrection.”
There can be no doubt that the occurrence at Bethany was an awakening in the spiritual sense. Lazarus became something different from what he was before, He was raised to a life of which the Eternal Word could say: “I am that Life.” What, then, took place in Lazarus? The Spirit came to life within him. He became a partaker of the Life which is eternal. We have only to express his experience in the words of those who were initiated into the Mysteries, and the meaning at once becomes clear. What does Plutarch (cf. p. 24 et seq.) say about the object of the Mysteries? That they served to withdraw the soul from bodily life and to unite it with the gods. Schelling describes the feelings of an initiate thus:
“The initiate through his initiation became a link in the magic chain, he himself became a Kabir. 1Kabirs, according to ancient mysticism, are beings with a consciousness far above the human consciousness of today. Schelling means that man through initiation ascends to a state of consciousness above his present one. He was admitted into an indissoluble union and, as ancient inscriptions express it, joined to the army of the higher gods.” 2Schelling, Philosophie der Offenbarung. And the revulsion that took place in the life of the one who received initiation cannot be more significantly described than in the words spoken by Aedesius to his disciple, the Emperor Constantine: “If one day thou shouldst take part in the Mysteries, thou wilt feel ashamed of having been born merely as a man.”
If we fill our souls with such feelings as these, We shall gain the right attitude towards the event that took place at Bethany and have a very special experience through St. John’s narrative. A certainty will dawn upon us which cannot be obtained by any logical interpretation or by any attempt at rationalistic explanation. A Mystery in the true sense of the word is before us. The Eternal Word entered into Lazarus. In the language of the Mysteries, he became an initiate (vide p. 107 et seq.), and the event narrated to us must be the process of initiation.
Let us look upon the whole occurrence as though it were an initiation. Lazarus is loved by Jesus (John XI, 36). No ordinary affection can be meant by this, for it would be contrary to the spirit of St. John’s Gospel, in which Jesus is the Word. Jesus loved Lazarus because he found him ripe for the awakening of the Word within him. Jesus had relations with the family at Bethany. This only means that Jesus had made everything ready in that family for the final act of the drama, the raising of Lazarus. The latter was a disciple of Jesus, such a one that Jesus could be quite sure that in him the awakening would be consummated, The final act in a drama of awakening consisted in a symbolical action, unveiling the spirit. The person involved in it had not only to understand the Words, “Die and become!” He had to fulfil them himself by a spiritually real action. His earthly part, of which in the spirit of the Mysteries his higher being must be ashamed, had to be put away. The earthly must die a symbolic real death. The putting of his body into a somnambulic sleep for three days can only be denoted as an outer event in comparison with the greatness of the transformation taking place in him. An incomparably more momentous spiritual event corresponded to it. But this very process was the experience which divides the life of the mystic into two parts. One who does not know from experience the higher significance of such acts cannot understand them. They can only be suggested by means of a comparison.
The substance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet may be compressed into a few words. Anyone who learns these words may say in a certain sense that he knows the contents of Hamlet; and logically he does. But one who has let all the wealth of the Shakespearian drama stream in upon him knows Hamlet in a different way: A life content has passed through his soul which cannot be replaced by any mere description. The Hamlet concept has become an artistic, personal experience within him.
On a higher plane of consciousness, a similar process takes place in man when he experiences the magically significant event which is bound up with initiation: What he attains spiritually, he lives through symbolically. The word “symbolically” is used here in the sense that an outer event is really enacted on the physical plane, but that as such it, nevertheless, remains a picture. It is not a case of an unreal, but of a real picture. The earthly body has really been dead for three days. New life comes forth from death. This life has outlived death. Man has gained confidence in the new life.
That is what happened to Lazarus. Jesus had prepared him for resurrection. His illness was at once symbolic and real, an illness which was an initiation, and which leads, after three days, to a really new life. 3What has here been described refers to the ancient initiations that actually called for a sleep condition lasting three days. Genuine modern initiation does not demand this — in fact, it leads to a heightened consciousness; and ordinary consciousness is never obscured during the drama of initiation.
Lazarus was ripe for undergoing this experience. He wrapped himself in the garment of the mystic and fell into a condition of lifelessness which was symbolic death. And when Jesus came, the three days had elapsed. “Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead was laid. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me’” (John XI, 41). The Father had heard Jesus, for Lazarus had reached the final act in the great drama of knowledge. He had learned how resurrection is attained. An initiation into the Mysteries had been consummated. It was an initiation such as the whole of Antiquity had envisioned. It had taken place through Jesus, as the initiator. It was thus that union with the Divine had always been conceived of.
In Lazarus Jesus accomplished the great miracle of the transmutation of life in the sense of immemorial tradition. This constitutes a link connecting Christianity with the Mysteries. Lazarus had become an initiate through Christ Jesus Himself, and had thereby become able to enter the higher worlds. He was at once the first Christian initiate and the one initiated by Christ Jesus Himself. Through his initiation he had become capable of recognizing that the Word which had been awakened within him had become a person in Christ Jesus, and that consequently there stood before him in the personality of his awakener the same force which had been spiritually manifested within him. From this point of view these 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.” (St. John, XI, 42). The point is to make evident that in Jesus lives the Son of the Father in such a way that when He awakens His own nature in man, man becomes an initiate. In this way Jesus made it plain that the meaning of life was hidden in the Mysteries and that they were the path to its understanding. He is the living Word; in Him was personified what had been immemorial tradition. And therefore the Evangelist is justified in expressing this in the sentence: “in Him the Word was made flesh.” He rightly sees in Jesus Himself an incarnated Mystery. On this account St. 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 the old order had written it he would have described traditional rites. These for St. John took the form of a person and became the life of Jesus.
When an eminent modern scholar 4Burkhardt, Die Zeit Konstantins. says of the Mysteries that “they will never be cleared up”, this merely means that he has not found the path to enlightenment. If we take the Gospel of St. John and see in it the working out, in symbolic-corporeal reality, of the drama of knowledge presented by the ancients, we are really gazing upon the Mystery itself.
In the words, “Lazarus, come forth,” we can recogNize the call with which the Egyptian priestly initiators summoned those back to everyday life who submitted to the exalting processes of initiation in order to die to earthly things and to gain a conviction of the reality of the Eternal. And thereby 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 Æschylus, had he betrayed the secrets of the Mysteries.
The main point for Jesus was to demonstrate in the initiation of Lazarus, before all “the people which stood by,” an event which in the old days of priestly wisdom could only be enacted in the recesses of the Mystery-temples. The initiation of Lazarus was intended to prepare the way for an understanding of the Mystery of Golgotha. Previously, only those who saw — that is to say, who were initiated — were conversant with the nature of such an initiation; but from now on, insight into the secrets of the higher worlds was to be opened up as well to those who “had not seen, and yet had believed”.