23rd December 1946.
The news of Lazarus' death must have had the same effect as a stick stirred inside a beehive. Everybody in Jerusalem talks about it. Notables, merchants, common people, poor people, the townspeople, people from the nearby country, foreigners passing through but familiar with the place, strangers who are there for the first time and ask who is the man whose death is the cause of so much commotion, Romans, legionaries, members of the staff, and Levites and priests who continually gather together and then part, running here and there... Small knots of people discussing the event with different words and expressions. Some utter words of praise, some weep, some feel they are more pauper than usual now that their benefactor is dead, some moan: « I shall never have such a master again », some mention his merits, some describe his wealth and kindred, his father's services and offices and his mother's beauty and riches and her « regal » birth; some, on the contrary, recall family events over which one should draw a veil of kindness, particularly when a dead man is involved who has suffered through them...
The small groups of people come up with the most desparate news on the cause of Lazarus' death, on the place of his burial, on the absence of Christ from the house of His great friend and protector just in that circumstance. The prevailing opinions are two: one is that all this happened, nay, was brought about by the bad behaviour of Judaeans, members of the Sanhedrin, Pharisees and the like towards the Master; the other, that the Master, being faced with a real deadly disease, sneaked away because His deceit would not be successful in this case. Also without being astute one can understand the source of the latter opinion, which embitters many who retort: « Are you a Pharisee as well? If you are, take care of yourself because the Holy One is not to be cursed in our presence! You abominable vipers born of hyenas coupled with Leviathan! Who pays you to curse the Messiah? » Squabbles, insults, also some blows, pungent rude remarks addressed to the richly dressed Pharisees and scribes, who pass by giving themselves the airs of gods, without condescending to look at the common people shouting in favour or against them, in favour or against the Messiah, resound in the streets. And how many accusations!
« This man is saying that Jesus is a false Master! He is certainly one who has put on weight with the money he received from those snakes who have just gone by! »
« With their money? With ours, you should say! They fleece us for such noble purposes! But where is he? I want to see whether he is one of those who came yesterday to tell me... »
« He has run away. But, blessed be the Lord, we must join together and take action. They are too insolent. »
Another conversation: « I have heard you and I know you. I will tell the people concerned what you said of the Supreme Court! »
« I belong to Christ, and the slaver of a demon does me no harm. If you wish, you can tell Annas and Caiaphas, and may it help them to become more honest. »
And farther away: « Me? You say that I am a perjurer and a blasphemer because I follow the living God? You are a perjurer and a blasphemer since you offend and persecute Him. I know who you are. I have seen you and heard you. You corrupt informer! Come! Take this!... » and in the meantime he begins to cuff the ears of a Judaean whose bony greenish face reddens.
« Comelius, Simon, look! They are bullying me » says another one farther away, addressing a group of members of the Sanhedrin.
« Endure it with faith and do not soil your hands and lips on a Sabbath's eve » replies one of the men, who had been called, without even turning to look at the unlucky person to whom a group of common people are dispensing rough justice...
Women are shouting calling their husbands whom they entreat not to compromise themselves.
Legionaries on patrol go around dispersing the crowds with their lances and threatening arrests and punishments.
Lazarus' death, the main fact, is the starting point to go on to secondary facts, to give vent to the long lasting tension in hearts...
The members of the Sanhedrin, the elders, scribes, Sadducees, the mighty Judaeans go by slyly, with indifference, as if all the outbursts of petty anger, of personal revenge, of nervousness were not rooted in them. And as the time goes by the agitation and the excitement increase more and more.
« Listen to this, these people here say that the Christ cannot cure sick people. I was a leper and now I am healthy. Do you know who they are? I do not come from Jerusalem, but I have never seen them among the disciples of the Christ these last two years. »
« Those men? Let me see the one in the middle! Ah! you rascal and thief! You are the one who last month came to me to offer me money in the name of the Christ, saying that He hires men to seize Palestine. And you now say... But why did you let him escape? »
« Have you seen that? How mischievous they are! And they almost caught me! My father-in-law was right! There is Joseph the Elder with John and Joshua. Let us go and ask them whether it is true that the Master wants to assemble an army. They are just and they know. » They all rush towards the three members of the Sanhedrin and ask their question.
« Go home, men. One sins and does harmful things in the streets. Do not argue. Don't take fright. Mind your own business and take care of your families. Don't listen to agitators or dreamers and don't allow yourselves to be beguiled. The Master is a master, not a warrior. You know Him. And He speaks His mind. He would not have sent other people to ask you to follow Him as warriors, if He wanted you to be such. Don't do any harm to Him, to yourselves and to our Fatherland. Home, men! Home! Do not allow what is already a misfortune – the death of a just man – to become a series of misfortunes. Go back to your houses and pray for Lazarus, who was charitable to everybody » says Joseph of Arimathea, who must be loved and listened to by the people who know him to be a just man.
Also John (the man who was jealous) says: « He is a peaceful not a warlike man. Don't listen to false disciples. Remember how different the others were, who said they were the Messiah. Remember and ponder, and your justice will tell you that those instigations to violence could not come from Him! Go home! Go back to your women who are weeping and to your children who are frightened. It is said: “Woe to those who are violent and to those who encourage brawls”. »
A group of weeping women approach the three members of the Sanhedrin and one of them says: « The scribes have threatened my man. I am afraid! Joseph, please speak to them. »
« Yes, I will. But let your husband be quiet. Do you think that you are assisting the Master by means of these agitations and that you are honouring the dead man? You are wrong. You are harmful to both of them » replies Joseph and he leaves them to go towards Nicodemus, who is coming from one of the streets, followed by servants, and he says to him: « I was not hoping to meet you, Nicodemus. I do not know myself how I managed. Lazarus' servant came to me at the end of the fourth watch to inform me of the sad event. »
« And he came to me later. I left at once. Do you know whether the Master is at Bethany? »
« No, He is not there. My steward in Bezetha was there at the third hour and he told me that the Master is not there. »
« I do not know how... miracles for everybody but not for him! » exclaims John.
« Probably because He gave the household more than a miraculous cure: He redeemed Mary and granted peace and honour... » says Joseph.
« Peace and honour! Of good people to good people. Because many... have not paid and do not pay honour even now that Mary... You do not know... Three days ago Helkai and many others were there... and they did not pay honour. And Mary drove them away. They were furious when they told me, and I just let them say what they liked, as I did not want to disclose my heart to them... » says Joshua.
« And are they going to the funeral now? » asks Nicodemus.
« They have been informed and they have met at the Temple to decide. Oh! their servants have been very busy running about at dawn this morning! »
« Why such hurry for the funeral? Immediately after the sixth hour!... »
« Because Lazarus was already rotten when he died. My steward told me that although resins are burning in the rooms and perfumes have been spread profusely on the dead body, the stench of the corpse is smelt even at the porch of the house. In any case the Sabbath begins at sunset. It was not possible to do otherwise. »
« And you say that they held a meeting at the Temple? Why? »
« Well... in actual fact the meeting had already been called to discuss Lazarus' case. They wanted to state that he was leprous... » says Joshua.
« Surely not. He would have been the first to live in isolation according to the Law » says Joseph defending him. And he adds: « I spoke to their doctor. He excluded it without any possibility of doubt. He was affected by putrid consumption. »
« So what did they discuss, since Lazarus was already dead? » asks Nicodemus.
« Whether they should go to the funeral, after Mary has driven them away. Some wanted to go, some were against it. Those who wanted to go were the majority and for three reasons. To see whether the Master was there, the first reason agreed to by everybody. To see whether He will work a miracle, the second reason. The third reason: the remembrance of words spoken recently by the Master to some scribes at the Jordan near Jericho » explains Joshua once again.
« The miracle! Which, if he is already dead? » asks John shrugging his shoulders, and he concludes: « The usual... seekers of what is impossible! »
« The Master has raised other people from the dead » remarks Joseph.
« That is true. But if He had wanted him to be alive, He would not have let him die. The reason mentioned by you previously is correct. They have already been granted much. »
« Yes. But Uziel and Sadoc have recalled a challenge of many months ago. The Christ said that He will give proof that He can recompose also a decomposed body. And Lazarus is such. And Sadoc, the scribe, also says that, near the Jordan, the Rabbi spontaneously told him that at the new moon he would see half of the challenge being accomplished. That is: a decomposed person that revives, without further decomposition or disease. And their opinion prevailed. If that happens, it is because the Master is there. And if that happens, there will be no more doubts about Him. »
« Providing that is not detrimental... » whispers Joseph.
« Detrimental? Why? The scribes and Pharisees will be convinced... »
« Oh! John! Are you a stranger that you should say that? Do you not know your fellow-citizens? When has the truth ever made them holy? Does it mean nothing to you that no invitation to the meeting was brought to my house? »
« It was not brought to mine either. They suspect us and they often leave us out » says Nicodemus. Then he asks: « Was Gamaliel there? »
« His son was there. And he will come also in place of his father, who is unwell at Gamala in Judaea. »
« And what did Simeon say? »
« Nothing. Nothing at all. He listened. Then he went away. Not long ago he passed with some of his father's disciples, going towards Bethany. »
They are almost at the gate leading onto the road to Bethany. And John exclaims: « Look! It is garrisoned. Why? And they are stopping those coming out. »
« There is agitation in town... »
« Oh! But it is not a very fierce one... »
They arrive at the gate and they are stopped like everybody else.
« What is the reason for this, soldier? I am well known to everybody in the Antonia, and you cannot speak ill of me. I respect you and your laws » says Joseph of Arimathea.
« It is the order of the Centurion. The Commander is about to enter the town and we want to know who comes out of the gates, particularly of this one that opens onto the Jericho road. We know you. But we also know the feelings of the Judaeans towards us. You and those who are with you may go on. And if you have influence on the people tell them that it is better for them to be calm. Pontius does not like to change his habits because of subjects who cause him trouble... and he might be too severe. A piece of sincere advice to you who are sincere. » They go on.
« Did you hear that? I foresee troublesome days... It will be necessary to advise the others, rather than the people... » says Joseph.
The Bethany road is crowded with people all going in the same direction: to Bethany. They are all going to the funeral. One can see members of the Sanhedrin and Pharisees mingled with Sadducees and scribes, with peasants, servants, with the stewards of the various houses and estates that Lazarus owned in town and in the country, and the more one approaches Bethany, the more people pour into the main road from paths and other side roads.
There is Bethany. Bethany mourning for its greatest citizen. All the inhabitants, wearing their best clothes, have already left their houses, which are locked as if no one lived in them. But they are not yet in the house of the dead man. Curiosity holds them back near the gate and along the road. They watch the people who have been invited, as they pass by, they mention their names and exchange impressions.
« There is Nathanael ben Faba. Oh! Old Mattathias, Jacob's relative! Annas' son! He is over there with Doras, Callascebona and Archelaus. Oh! How did those of Galilee manage to come? They are all there. Look: Eli, Johanan, Ishmael, Uriah, Joachim, Elias, Joseph... Old Hananiah with Sadoc, Zacharias and Johanan, the Sadducees. There is also Simeon of Gamaliel. He is all alone. The rabbi is not there. There is Helkai with Nahum, Felix, Annas the scribe, Zacharias, Jonathan ben Uriel! Saul with Eleazar, Triphon and Joazar. Fine rascals these last ones! Another son of Annas. The youngest. He is talking to Simon Camit. Philip with John Antipatrides. Alexander, Isaac and Jonah of Babaon. Sadoc. Judas, a descendant of the Asideans, the last one, I think, of that class. There are the stewards of the various buildings. I do not see any of the faithful friends. How many people! »
Really! How many people. They are all supercilious, some with an expression for the occasion, some with the signs of true grief on their faces. They are all swallowed up by the wide open gate, and I see pass by all those who in successive stages appeared to be friendly or hostile to the Master. Everybody, with the exception of Gamaliel and of Simon, the member of the Sanhedrin. And I see also other people, whom I have never seen before, or whom I may have seen without knowing their names, disputing round Jesus... Rabbis pass by with their disciples, and scribes in close groups. And Judaeans go along while I hear their riches being listed... The garden is full of people who, after going to express their sympathy with the sisters – who, probably according to the local custom, are sitting under the porch, and are therefore outside the house – come back and spread out in the garden in continuous blending of colours and bowing in salutation.
Martha and Mary are worn out. They are holding each other's hand like two little girls, frightened of the sad gap in their family, of the emptiness of their days now that they no longer have to take care of Lazarus. They listen to the words of visitors, they weep with true friends, with loyal subordinates, they bow to the icy imposing stiff members of the Sanhedrin who have come more to attract attention to themselves than to honour the dead man, and although they are tired of repeating the same things hundreds of times, they reply to those asking them about Lazarus' last moments.
Joseph, Nicodemus, the most devoted friends are near them speaking only few words, but their friendship comforts them more than any word.
Helkai comes back with the more intransigent members of the Sanhedrin, to whom he has been speaking for a long time and he asks: « Could we see the dead body? »
Martha grievously wipes her forehead with her hand and asks: « When is that ever done in Israel? It is already prepared... » and tears stream slowly from her eyes.
« It is not the custom, that is true. But that is what we wish. The more loyal friends are certainly entitled to see their friends for the last time. »
« We also, as his sisters, should have been entitled to see him. But it was necessary to embalm him at once... And when we went back into Lazarus' room we only saw the form of his body wrapped in linen cloths... »
« You should have given clear instructions. Could you not have had the sudarium removed from his face? Can you not remove it now? »
« Oh! it is already decomposed... And it is time for the funeral... »
Joseph joins in the conversation: « Helkai, I think that we... out of excess of love, are the cause of grief. Let us leave the sisters in peace... »
Simeon, Gamaliel's son, moves forward to prevent Helkai from replying: « My father will come as soon as he is able. I represent him. He held Lazarus in high esteem. So do I. »
Martha replies bowing: « May the honour of the rabbi for our brother be rewarded by God. »
As Gamaliel's son is there, Helkai stands aside without insisting further, and he talks the matter over with the others who point out to him: « Can you not smell the stench? Do you wish to doubt it? In any case we shall see whether they wall up the sepulchre. One cannot live without air. »
Another group of Pharisees approach the sisters. They are almost all from Galilee. After receiving their homage Martha cannot restrain herself from expressing her surprise at their presence.
« Woman, the Sanhedrin is in session to resolve upon matters of great importance and we are in town for that purpose » explains Simon of Capernaum, and he looks at Mary whose conversion he certainly remembers. But he just looks at her.
Then Johanan comes forward with Doras, the son of Doras, and with Ishmael, Hananiah, Sadoc and others whom I do not know. Their viperous faces express their intentions before their words do. But in order to strike they wait till Joseph goes away with Nicodemus to speak to three Judaeans. It is old Hananiah who with his clucking voice of a decrepit old man delivers the blow: « What do you think, Mary? Your Master is the only one to be absent among the many friends of your brother. Peculiar friendship! So much love while Lazarus was well! And so much indifference when it was time to love him! Everybody receives miracles from Him. But there is no miracle here. What do you say, woman, of such a situation? He has deceived you bitterly, the handsome Galilean Rabbi, hey! Did you not say that He told you to hope beyond what can be hoped for? So did you not hope, or is it of no avail to hope in Him? You were hoping in the Life, you said. Of course! He says that He is the “Life”, hey! But in there there is your dead brother. And over there the entrance of the sepulchre is already open. But the Rabbi is not here. Hey! Hey! »
« He can give death, not life » says Doras with a sneer.
Martha lowers her head covering her face with her hands and weeps. That is the real situation. Her hope has been bitterly disappointed. The Rabbi is not there. He did not even come to console them. And by now He could be there. Martha is weeping. She can but weep.
Mary is weeping, too. She also has to face facts. She believed, she hoped beyond what is credible... but nothing happened and the servants have already removed the stone from the entrance to the sepulchre because the sun is beginning to set and it sets early in winter, and it is Friday and everything must be done in time so that the guests may not have to infringe the law of the Sabbath that is about to begin. She has hoped so much, always, she hoped too much. She has consumed her energies in that hope. And she is disappointed.
Hananiah insists: « Are you not replying to me? Are you now persuaded that He is an impostor who has taken advantage of you and scoffed at you? Poor women! » and he shakes his head among his friends who imitate him saying also: « Poor women! »
Maximinus approaches them saying: « It is time. Give the order. It's for you to give it. »
Martha collapses on the floor, she is assisted and carried away among the cries of the servants, who realise that the time to lay their master in the sepulchre has come and they intone their lamentations.
Mary wrings her hands convulsively. She implores: « A little longer! A little longer! And send servants on the road to En-shemesh and to the fountain, on every road. Servants on horseback. To see whether He is coming... »
« Are you still hopeful, poor wretch? How can one convince you that He has betrayed and disappointed you? He has hated you and sneered at you... »
It is too much! With her face wet with tears, tortured but still faithful, in the semicircle formed by the guests who have gathered together to see the corpse go out, Mary proclaims: « If Jesus of Nazareth has done that, it is well done, and great is His love for us all in Bethany. Everything for God's glory and His own! He said that this will bring about glory to the Lord because the power of His Word will shine completely. Execute the order, Maximinus. The sepulchre is no obstacle to the power of God... »
She moves away, supported by Naomi who has approached her, and she makes a gesture... The corpse, enveloped in linen cloths, departs from the house, crosses the garden between the crowds forming a double hedge and shouting their grief. Mary would like to follow the corpse, but she staggers. She follows the crowds when they are all near the sepulchre. And she arrives in time to see the long motionless body disappear in the darkness of the sepulchre, where the reddish light of the torches held high by the servants illuminates the steps for those who are descending with the corpse. Lazarus' sepulchre in fact is rather deep in the ground, probably to take advantage of strata of underground rock.
Mary utters a cry... It is a torture... She shouts... And with the name of her brother she utters also Jesus'. She looks as if they were tearing her heart. And she only mentions those two names, and she repeats them until the heavy thud of the stone placed against the entrance of the sepulchre tells her that Lazarus is no longer on the Earth, not even with his body. She is then overwhelmed and loses consciousness. She collapses into the arms of those supporting her and while sinking into a deep swoon she whispers again: « Jesus! Jesus! ». They carry her away.
Maximinus remains to dismiss the guests and thank them on behalf of all the relatives. He remains to hear them all say that they will come back to condole every day...
They disperse slowly. The last to depart are Joseph, Nicodemus, Eleazar, John, Joachim, Joshua. And at the gate they find Sadoc with Uriel, who laugh maliciously saying: « His challenge! And we were afraid of it! »
« Oh! He is really dead. How he stank notwithstanding the aromatic essences! There is no doubt about it! It was not necessary to remove the sudarium. I think that he is already decadent. » They are happy.
Joseph looks at them. His glance is so severe that it cuts short words and laughter. They all make haste to go back to be in town before sunset is over.