21st December 1946.
They have opened all the doors and windows in Lazarus' room, to make it easier for him to breathe. And around him, who is unconscious, in a coma – a deep coma like death, from which it differs only because of his breathing movement – there are his two sisters, Maximinus, Marcella and Naomi, intent on the least act of the dying man.
Every time the pangs of death contract his mouth and it seems to assume the expression of one about to speak, or his eyes can be partly seen when he half-opens his eyelids, the two sisters bend over him to catch a word, a glance... But in vain. They are nothing but movements lacking coordination, independent of his will and intelligence, which are by now both inert and lost. They are acts brought about by the suffering flesh, just like the perspiration that makes the face of the dying man shiny, and the tremor that at intervals shakes his skeletal fingers, making them look like contracted claws. The two sisters also call him, with all their love in their voices. But his name and their love collide with the barrier of intellective insensibility, and the silence of death is the reply to their calling.
Naomi, weeping, continues to place warm bricks, enveloped in strips of woollen cloth, near his feet, which must be very cold. Marcella is holding in her hands a cup into which she dips a piece of thin linen, which Martha uses to moisten her brother's dry lips. Mary with another piece of linen wipes the plentiful perspiration which streams down the skeletal face and wets the hands of the dying man. Maximinus, leaning against a tall dark cabinet near Lazarus' bed, watches standing behind Mary, who is bent over her brother.
There is no one else. There is dead silence, as if they were in an empty house, in a desert place. The maidservants who bring the warm bricks are barefooted and make no noise walking on the marble floor. They look like apparitions.
At a certain moment Mary says: « His hands seem to become warm. Look, Martha, his lips are not so pale. »
« Yes. And he is breathing more freely. I have noticed that for some time » remarks Maximinus.
Martha bends over him and calls him in a low voice, in a very warm tone: « Lazarus! Lazarus! Oh! Look, Mary! He seemed to smile and to bat his eyelids. He is improving, Mary! He is getting better! What time is it? »
« It's one hour past sunset. »
« Ah! » and Martha stands up, pressing her hands against her breast, raising her eyes in a visible gesture of mute but confident prayer. A smile brightens her face.
The others look at her in amazement and Mary says to her: « I fail to see why the fact that it is evening should make you happy... » and she scans her face suspiciously and anxiously.
Martha does not reply, but she resumes the same posture she had previously.
A maid comes in with some bricks, which she hands to Naomi. Mary says to her: « Bring two lamps. It is getting dark and I want to see him. » The maid goes out noiselessly and soon comes back with two lighted oil-lamps, and she lays one on the cabinet near Maximinus, and the other on a table encumbered with bandages and tiny amphorae, on the other side of the bed.
« Oh! Mary! Mary! He is really less pale. »
« And not so exhausted looking. He is reviving! » says Marcella.
« Give him a few more drops of that spicy wine that Sarah prepared. It did him good » suggests Maximinus.
From the top of the cabinet Mary takes a tiny slender-necked amphora, shaped like the beak of a bird, and she carefully pours a few drops of wine between Lazarus' half-closed lips.
« Slowly, Mary. That he may not choke! » advises, Naomi.
« Oh! he swallows it! He wants it! Look, Martha! Look! He is sticking his tongue out, seeking it... »
They all bend to look, and Naomi calls him: « Darling! Look at your wet-nurse, o blessed soul! » and she moves forward to kiss him.
« Look! Look, Naomi, he is drinking your tears! One fell near his lips, he felt it, he sought it and he absorbed it. »
« Oh! my darling! If I had the milk of days gone by, I would squeeze it out for you drop by drop, my little lamb, even if I had to squeeze my heart and then die! » I gather that Naomi, Mary's wet nurse, nursed also Lazarus.
« Mistresses, Nicomedes has come back » says a servant appearing at the door.
« Let him come in! He will help us to make him recover. »
« Look! Look! He is opening his eyes and moving his lips » says Maximinus.
« He is pressing my fingers with his own! » shouts Mary. And she bends saying: « Lazarus! Can you hear me? Who am I? »
Lazarus really opens his eyes and looks, an uncertain veiled look, but still a look. He moves his lips with difficulty and says: « Mother! »
« I am Mary. Mary! Your sister! »
« Mother! »
« He does not recognise you and he is calling his mother. Dying people always do that » says Naomi, whose face is wet with tears.
« But he speaks. After such a long time he speaks. It is already a good deal... He will feel better later. Oh! my Lord, reward your maidservant! » says Martha once again with the gesture of fervent confident prayer.
« But what happened to you? Have you seen the Master? Did He appear to you? Tell me, Martha. Relieve my anguish! » says Mary.
Nicomedes' coming in prevents a reply. They all address him telling him how after his departure Lazarus had grown worse, so much so that he was on the point of dying, and in fact they believed that he was dead, then, with some aids they had made him come to himself, but only as far as to make him breathe. And how, a short time ago, with a spicy wine prepared by one of the women, he had begun to warm up again, he had swallowed some and tried to drink, and he had also opened his eyes and had spoken... They are all speaking together, with revived hope, contrasting with the somewhat skeptical calmness of the doctor who lets them speak without uttering one word.
At last, when they have finished, he says: « All right. Let me see. » He pushes them aside as he approaches the bed and asks them to bring some lights and to close the window, as he wants to uncover the patient. He bends over him, he calls him, he questions him, he moves an oil-lamp to and fro in front of the face of Lazarus, who has now opened his eyes and seems amazed at everything; he then uncovers him, studies his breathing, his heartbeats, the temperature and stiffness of his limbs... They are all anxiously awaiting his word. Nicomedes covers the patient again, looks at him and is pensive. He then turns round looking at the people present and says: « It is undeniable that he has recovered strength. He has improved since the last time I saw him. But do not delude yourselves. It is nothing but the fictitious improvement of death. I am so certain, as I was certain that it is the end, that, as you can see, I have come back, after freeing myself of my commitments, to make his death less painful, as far as I can do so... or to see the miracle if... Have you taken action? »
« Yes, Nicomedes, we have » says Martha interrupting him. And to prevent him from asking further questions, she says: « But did you not say that... within three days... I... » She weeps.
« I said. I am a doctor. I live amidst agonies and tears. But the habitual sight of grief has not yet turned me into a heartless man. And today... I prepared you... with a rather long... and vague date... But my medical knowledge warned me that the end would come sooner, and my heart misrepresented the truth as a pitiful deception... Now! Be brave... Go out... We never know how much dying people understand... » He pushes them out, while they weep, repeating: « Be brave! Be brave! »
Maximinus remains with the dying man... The doctor also goes away to prepare some medicines capable of making the agony less distressing, as he says: « I foresee that it will be very painful. »
« Make him live! Make him live till tomorrow. It is almost night, as you can see, Nicomedes. It is no problem for your science to keep a man alive for less than one day! Make him live! »
« Madam, I do what I can. But when the wick ends, nothing can keep the flame alive! » replies the doctor, and he goes away.
The two sisters embrace each other, weeping disconsolately, and Mary is the one who is weeping more. Her sister has a hopeful heart...
They hear Lazarus' voice coming from his room. A loud authoritative voice that startles them because it is unexpected from such a weak person. He calls them: « Martha! Mary! Where are you? I want to get up. I want to get dressed! I want to tell the Master that I am cured! I must go to the Master. A wagon! At once. And a fast horse. It was certainly He Who cured me... »
He speaks fast, syllabising the words, sitting on his bed, flushed with a high temperature, trying to get out of the bed, prevented from doing so by Maximinus, who says to the women rushing into the room: « He is raving! »
« No! Let him go. The miracle! The miracle! Oh! I am so happy that I provoked it! As soon as Jesus was told! God of our fathers, may You be blessed and praised for Your power and because of Your Messiah... » Martha, who has dropped on her knees, is beside herself with joy.
In the meantime Lazarus continues to speak, excited more and more by his temperature, which Martha does not understand is the cause of everything, and he says: « He came so often to see me, when I was ill. It is fair that I should go to Him and say: “I am cured”. I am cured! I feel no more pains! I am strong. I want to get up. I want to go. God wanted to test my resignation. I shall be called the new Job... » He assumes a hieratic attitude and making wide gestures he says: « ”The Lord was moved by Job's penance... and gave him double what he had before. And the Lord blessed the last years of Job more than the first ones… and he lived until…”. No, I am not Job! I was among the flames and He pulled me out, I was in the belly of the monster and I have come back to light. So I am Jonah, and I am the three children of Daniel... »
The doctor, called by someone, comes in. He looks at him: « It's delirium. I was expecting it. The corruption of the blood affects the brains. » He strives to lay him down and exhorts the others to hold him carefully, and he goes out again to attend to his decoctions.
Lazarus at times becomes rather impatient of being held, at times he weeps like a child.
« He is really delirious » moans Mary.
« No. None of you understand anything. You cannot believe. Of course! You do not know... By now the Master is aware that Lazarus is dying. Yes, I informed Him, Mary! I did it without saying anything to you... »
« Ah! wretch! You have destroyed the miracle! » shouts Mary.
« No! As you can see, he began to feel better when Jonah reached the Master. He is raving... Certainly... He is weak, and his brain is still dulled with death that had already grasped at him. But he is not raving as the doctor thinks. Listen to him! Are those the words of a delirious person? »
Lazarus in fact is saying: « I bent my head to the decree of death and I tasted how bitter it is to die, and God has now said that He is satisfied with my resignation and He is restoring me to life and giving me back to my sisters. I shall still be able to serve the Lord and sanctify myself with Martha and Mary... With Mary! What is Mary? Mary is Jesus' gift to poor Lazarus. He had told me... What a long time since then! “Your forgiveness will do more than anything else. It will help Me.” He promised me: “She will be your joy.” And on that day that I was upset because she had brought her shame here, near the Holy One, what words He spoke inviting her to come back! Wisdom and Charity had joined together to touch her heart... And the other day, when He found me offering myself for her redemption?... I want to live to rejoice with my redeemed sister! I want to praise the Lord with her! Streams of tears, insults, shame, bitterness... everything has pierced me and killed my life because of her... Here is the fire, the fire of the furnace! It is coming back, with its memory... Mary of Theophilus and Eucheria, my sister, the prostitute. She could have been a queen and she became the filth that even a pig tramples on. And my mother who dies. And not being able to go among people any longer without having to put up with their mockery. Because of her! Where are you, you wretch? Were you lacking bread, perhaps, that you should sell yourself? What did you suck from the nipple of your wet-nurse? What did your mother teach you? Lust the former? Sin the latter? Go away! Disgrace of our family! »
His voice is a shout. He seems to be mad. Marcella and Naomi hasten to close the doors and to draw the heavy curtains to deaden the sound, whilst the doctor, who has come into the room, strives in vain to calm the delirium that is becoming more and more violent. Mary, prostrated dejectedly on the floor, is sobbing under the implacable charge of the dying man who goes on:
« One, two, ten lovers. The shame of Israel passed from one embrace to another one... Her mother was dying, she was rejoicing in her obscene love affairs. Beast! Vampire! You sucked your mother's life. You destroyed our joy. Martha was sacrificed because of you. No one marries the sister of a prostitute. I... Ah! I! Lazarus, a knight, the son of Theophilus... The urchins in Ophel used to spit at me!! “Here is the accomplice of an adulteress and of a prostitute” the scribes and Pharisees used to say shaking their garments meaning that they rejected the sin of which I was foul through her contact! “Here is the sinner! He who is not capable of striking the culprit is guilty himself” the rabbis used to shout when I went up to the Temple, and I was bathed in perspiration under the fiery eyes of the priests... The fire. You! You vomited the fire that was within you. Because you are a demon, Mary. You are filthy. You are anathema. Your fire clung to everybody, because your fire comprised many fires, and there was some for lustful people who looked like fish caught in a drag-net whenever you passed by... Why did I not kill you? I shall burn in Gehenna for allowing you to live ruining so many families, scandalising thousands of people... Who said: “Alas for the man who provides scandal”? Who said so? Ah! the Master! I want the Master! I want Him! That He may forgive me. I want to tell Him that I could not kill her because I loved her... Mary was sunshine in our house... I want the Master! Why is He not here? I don't want to live! But I want to be forgiven for the scandal that I stirred up by allowing the cause of scandal to live. I am already enveloped in flames. It's the fire of Mary. It is burning me. It burnt everybody. To give lust to her, to bring hatred against us, to burn my flesh. Take these blankets away, take everything away! I am on fire. It is burning my flesh and my spirit. I am lost because of her. Master! Master! Forgive me! He is not coming. He cannot come to Lazarus' house. It's a dunghill because of her. So... I want to forget. Everything. I am no longer Lazarus. Give me some wine. Solomon says: “Give wine to those who are broken-hearted, let them drink and forget their misery, so that they may remember their grief no more.” I don't want to remember any more. Everybody says: “Lazarus is rich, the richest man in Judaea.” It's not true! It is all straw. It is not gold. And the houses? They are clouds. His vineyards, oases, gardens, olive-groves? Nothing. Deceit. I am Job. I have nothing. I had a pearl. Beautiful! Of infinite value. She was my pride. Her name was Mary. I no longer have her. I am poor. The poorest of them all. The most deceived... Jesus also deceived me. Because He told me that He would give her back to me, instead she... Where is she? There she is. The woman of Israel, the daughter of a holy mother, looks like a heathen hetaera! Half-naked, drunk, mad... And around her, with their eyes fixed on the naked body of my sister, the pack of her lovers... And she enjoys being admired and craved for thus. I want to make amends for my crime. I want to go through Israel saying: “Don't go near the house of my sister. Her house is the path to hell and it descends into the abyss of death”. Then I want to go to her and tread on her, because it is written: “Every unchaste woman will be trampled on like dung on the road”. Oh! Have you the nerve to show yourself to me who am dying like a dishonoured man, destroyed by you? After I offered my life to redeem your soul, and to no avail? Are you asking me how I wanted you? How I wanted you in order not to die thus? This is how I wanted you: like the chaste Susanna. Are you saying that they tempted you? And did you not have a brother to defend you? Susanna, who was all alone, replied: “I prefer to fall innocent into your power, than to sin in the eyes of the Lord”, and God made her innocence shine. I would have spoken the necessary words to those who tempted you and I would have defended you. Instead, you went away. Judith was a widow and she lived in seclusion, wearing sack-cloth and fasting and she was held in high esteem by everybody, because she feared the Lord and people sing of her: “You are the glory of Jerusalem, the joy of Israel, the honour of our race, because you acted in a manly manner and bravely, because you loved chastity and after your marriage you have known no other man. That is why the hand of the Lord made you strong and you will be blessed forever.” If Mary had been like Judith, the Lord would have cured me. But He could not cure me because of her. That is why I did not ask to be cured. There can be no miracle where she is. But it is nothing to die, to suffer. I would suffer ten times as much and die several times, provided she were saved. Oh! Most High Lord! I am prepared to suffer all deaths and all sorrows, but let Mary be saved! To enjoy her company for one hour, for one hour only, when she has become holy and as pure as she was in her childhood! One hour of that joy! To be proud of her, the golden flower of my house, the kind gazelle with meek eyes, the evening nightingale, the loving dove... I want the Master to tell Him that that is what I want: Mary! Mary! Come! Mary! How grieved is your brother, Mary! But if you come, if you redeem yourself, my sorrow will turn into delight. Look for Mary! I am at the end! I am dying! Mary! Light! Air... I... I'm suffocating... Oh! what I feel!... »
The doctor makes a gesture and says: « It is the end. After delirium, sopor then death. But he may have a revival of intelligence. Come close to him. You in particular. It will make him happy » and after laying Lazarus down with care, exhausted as he is with so much excitement, he goes towards Mary, who has been weeping all the time moaning on the floor: « Make him keep quiet! ». He lifts her up and takes her to the bed.
Lazarus has closed his eyes. But he must be suffering dreadfully. His whole body trembles spasmodically. The doctor tries to help him with potions... Some time goes by thus.
Lazarus opens his eyes. He does not seem to remember what happened before, but he is conscious. He smiles at his sisters and tries to take their hands and to reply to their kisses. He turns deadly pale. He moans: « I am cold... » and his teeth chatter as he tries to cover his face with the bedclothes. He groans: « Nicomedes, I cannot resist the pain any longer. Wolves are eating the flesh of my legs and devouring my heart. How painful it is! And if this is agony, what will death be like? What shall I do? Oh! if I had the Master here! Why did you not bring Him to me? I would have died a happy death on His lap... » he says weeping.
Martha casts a severe glance at Mary. Mary understands the meaning of that glance, and still crushed by her brother's frenzy, she is conscience-stricken and kneeling against the bed, she bends to kiss Lazarus' hand saying plaintively: « I am the guilty one. Martha wanted to do so two days ago. I did not let her. Because He told us that we had to inform Him only after your death. Forgive me! I have been the cause of all the grief of your lifetime... And yet I loved you and I love you, brother. After the Master, I love you more than anybody and God knows that I am not lying. Tell me that you absolve me of my past, that I may have peace... »
« Madam! » says the doctor reproachingly. « The patient is in no need of emotions. »
« That is true... Tell me that you forgive me for not calling Jesus... »
« Mary! Jesus came here for you... and He comes because of you... because you know how to love... more than all the rest... You have loved me more than the rest... A life... of delights would not have given me... not have given me... the joy that I experienced because of you... I bless you... I say to you... that you did the right thing... in obeying Jesus... I did not know... I know... I say... it is right... Help me to die!... Naomi... you knew once... how to... make me fall asleep... Martha... blessed... my peace... Maximinus... with Jesus. Also... for me... My share... to the poor... to Jesus... for the poor... And forgive... everybody... Ah! what atrocious pangs!... Air!... Light!... Everything is trembling... There a kind of light around you and it dazzles me if... I look at you... Speak... loud... » He has laid his left hand on Mary's head and has abandoned his right one into Martha's hands. He is panting...
They lift him carefully adding pillows, and Nicomedes makes him sip some more drops of potions. His poor head hangs and dangles in deadly languor. The only sign of life is his breathing. And yet he opens his eyes and looks at Mary who is holding his head and he smiles at her saying: « Mother! She has come back... Mother! Speak! Your voice... You know... the secret... of God... Have I served... the Lord?... »
Mary in a low voice, which grief has made as thin as a girl's, whispers: « The Lord is saying to you: “ Come with Me, My good and faithful servant, because you have listened to every word of Mine and you have loved the Word Whom I sent”. »
« I can't hear. Speak louder! »
Mary repeats in a louder voice...
« It is really mother!... » says Lazarus contentedly relaxing his head on his sister's shoulder...
He does not speak any more. Only wails and spasmodic tremor, only perspiration and heavy breathing. Insensible by now to the Earth, to affections, he sinks into the more and more absolute darkness of death. His eyelids close on his glassy eyes in which his last tears shine.
« Nicomedes! He is getting heavier! He is becoming cold!... » says Mary.
« Madam, death is a relief for him. »
« Keep him alive! Jesus will be certainly here tomorrow. He will have left at once. Perhaps He has taken the servant's horse or another mount » says Martha. And addressing her sister she says: « Oh! If you had let me send him earlier! » She then orders the doctor convulsively: « Make him live! »
The doctor stretches out his arms. He tries with some cordials. But Lazarus does not swallow any more.
His death-rattle increases... It is heart-rending...
« Oh! we cannot bear this any more! » says Naomi moaning.
« Yes. It's a long agony... » says the doctor assenting.
But he has hardly finished speaking when with a convulsion of his whole body, that arches and then collapses, Lazarus breathes his last.
His sisters shout... seeing his spasm, they shout seeing him collapse. Mary calls her brother, kissing him. Martha clings to the doctor as he bends over the dead body and says: « He is dead. It is now too late to wait for the miracle. There is nothing to wait for. Too late!... I am going, dominae. There is no reason why I should remain. Make haste for the funeral, because the body is already decomposed. » He closes the eyelids of the dead man and looking at him he says: « What a misfortune! He was a virtuous and intelligent man. He shouldn't have died! » He turns towards the sisters, he bows and greets them: « Ave! Dominae! » and he goes away.
Mournful laments fill the room. Mary has no more self-control and she throws herself on her brother's body shouting her remorse and invoking his forgiveness. Martha is weeping in Naomi's arms.
Then Mary shouts: « You did not have faith or obedience! I killed him first, you have killed him now; I, with my sins, you, with your disobedience. » She seems to have gone mad. Martha lifts her up, embraces her and apologises.
Maximinus, Naomi, Marcella try to bring both to reason and to resignation. And they succeed by remembering Jesus... Their grief quietens down, and while the room becomes crowded with weeping servants, and those responsible for the preparation of the corpse come in, the two sisters are led into another room to give vent to their grief.
Maximinus who is leading them says: « He passed away at the end of the second watch of the night. »
And Naomi says: « He will have to be buried early tomorrow, before sunset, when the Sabbath begins. You said that the Master wants solemn funeral ceremonies... »
« Yes. I leave that to you, Maximinus. I am not in the right frame of mind » says Martha.
« I am going and I will send servants to all the people concerned, both close at hand and far away, and I will give all the necessary instructions » says Maximinus and he withdraws.
The two sisters are weeping in each other's arms. They no longer reproach each other. They weep and try to console each other...
Some hours go by. The dead body is prepared in the room: a long figure enveloped in bandages under the sudarium.
« Why is he already covered like that! » exclaims Martha reproachingly.
« Mistress... A bad smell came from his nose and he threw up tainted blood when we moved him » says a servant apologising.
The sisters weep more loudly. Lazarus is already more remote under those bandages... A further step towards the remoteness of death.
They keep vigil by his bedside weeping, until dawn, when the servant comes back from beyond the Jordan. The servant is dismayed, but he informs them of his fast journey to bring them the news that Jesus is coming.
« Did He say that He is coming? Did He not reproach us? » asks Martha.
« No, mistress. He said: “I will come. Tell them that I will come and to have faith”. And before that He said: “Tell them not to worry. It is not a deadly disease. But it is for the glory of God, that His power may be glorified in His Son”. »
« Did He say exactly that? Are you sure? » asks Mary.
« Mistress, I have been repeating His words all the way back! »
« Go, then. You are tired. You have done everything well. But it is too late, now!... » says Martha with a sigh. And she bursts into tears as soon as she is left with her sister.
« Martha, why?... »
« Oh! in addition to his death, there is disappointment! Mary! Mary! Are you not considering that the Master is wrong this time? Look at Lazarus. He is really dead! We have hoped against hope, but to no avail. When I sent for Him, I certainly made a mistake, for he was more dead than alive. And our faith had no result or reward. And the Master has sent word that it is not a deadly disease! So is the Master no longer the Truth? He is no longer... Oh! That's the end of everything! »
Mary is wringing her hands. She does not know what to say. Facts are facts... But she does not speak. She does not say one word against her Jesus. She weeps. She is really exhausted.
Martha has a fixed idea in her heart: that she delayed too long. « It's your fault » she says reproachingly. « He wanted to test our faith thus. By obeying, I agree, but also by disobeying out of faith, to show to Him that we believed that He alone could and had to work the miracle. My poor brother! And he longed for Him so much! At least that: to see Him! Poor Lazarus! Poor brother! » And her weeping changes into howling, which is echoed in the adjoining rooms by the howls of the maids and servants, according to the eastern custom...