The hiss of my name draws me from a restless dream. Momentarily, relief surges through me; the gnarled hands pushing up from the soil to grasp at my brother’s ankles are not real. ‘Just a dream, just a dream’, my heart pounds loudly.
“Martha!” I hear the fear in my sister’s voice.
I stumble from the sleeping palette, remembering how Mary had coaxed me to leave Lazarus’ side in the night. “I will watch him for a few hours,” she had said. “He seems slightly better.” Because I was exhausted from two constant days and nights of standing vigil, I had agreed. And it was true that Lazarus no longer thrashed around in pain, even though his body still burned with fire.
Now I drop to my knees by his side. My fingers graze his forehead; its scorching heat shocks me. Only then, in the candlelight’s flicker, do I notice that Lazarus’ eyes are open. Yet, it is not my gaze he holds; his glazed eyes already seem to roam worlds far beyond our own.
“Stay with us a little longer, Laz,” I whisper. “The Rabbi will be here soon.”
It has been almost two days since we sent word to Jesus. With threats on his life, the Rabbi had left for the wilderness beyond the Jordan. He must have received our message by now. Surely, he would have left immediately. I had hoped he would arrive last night, but perhaps avoiding his enemies had slowed him down. He would be here in the morning, I felt sure. We just had to pull Lazarus through till then.
At dawn, Lazarus returns to us briefly, asking for water. He even whispers his thanks as I trickle it onto his seared lips.
At midday, I detect the rattle deep in Lazarus’ chest, as if his body is preparing to banish his breath for good.
By dusk, the people start to come, in preparation for shiva, and Mary—who has fluttered the day away between Lazarus and the window –sinks into my arms, and weeps. “Why didn’t he come, Martha? Why?”
Before midnight, the death-rattle falls silent, replaced by women’s wailing and the sound of ripping sackcloth. Grief has stolen away my own voice, but I fill myself to the brim with the wails around me, before thrusting them silently up to the heavens. Why didn’t he come? Why?
“The Rabbi is coming.”
I stare blankly at the young messenger, biting away the bitter words that almost cross my lips. Now? He comes now? Four days after we buried the one he supposedly loved so much?
“He is asking for you and Mary.”
Something cracks inside me at the boy’s words. Suddenly I want nothing more than to press through this cloying crowd and look into the only face that I know can bring a measure of comfort.
I rise quietly and step from the dark house, blinking at the stabbing light. Such betrayal – a sun that shines on a day it should hide its face in shame. My feet find the path I walked a lifetime ago.
The Rabbi’s men are seated on the side of the road, outside the village. They hurriedly stand as I approach, a mumble of consolation. Yet my eyes seek out only Jesus. I see the pain etched on his face as he looks at me, but instead of drawing comfort from our shared grief, it merely fuels my bitterness.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I instantly regret the grief-brittled words, and add softly, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”
“Your brother will rise again.” His own words are wrapped in gentleness, so different to my harsh tone.
“Yes, when everyone else rises, on resurrection day.” What good is that to me now? How can I survive a day, a week, a lifetime without gazing on Lazarus’ sweet face, without hearing his teasing laughter?
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again. They are given eternal life for believing in me and will never perish.” Jesus’ words crackle with authority and strength, igniting a small flame of hope in my heart. “Do you believe this Martha?”
“Yes Lord.” I bow my head, ashamed of the anger I have nurtured towards him these last four days. “I have always believed you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who has come into the world from God.”
I return home to call Mary and then watch her run up the same road that I had lumbered up earlier. Tenderness or curiosity, or maybe a bit of both, dislodges the mourning mob from my house in pursuit, leaving me alone in the hollow silence.
The people return later, led by Jesus and Mary, both their faces streaked with tears.
“He asks to see the tomb, Martha,” my uncle says.
I have little desire to return to the place where Lazarus’ cold body lies, but because the Rabbi wishes it, I lead the way to the cave and stand stoically aside as he drops to his knees and weeps. I hear the whispers behind us. See how much he loved him. Couldn’t he have kept him from dying? Yet I push the words from my mind, lest they fester once more into resentment.
“Roll the stone aside.” Jesus’ words pierce through the murmurs.
I recoil at the thought. “Lord, by now the smell will be terrible because he has been dead for four days.”
His eyes hold my own with a quiet intensity. “Didn’t I tell you that you will see God’s glory if you believe?”
As the stone is pushed away to reveal the gaping tomb, his voice rises. “Father, thank you for hearing me. You always hear me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so they will believe you sent me.”
And then his shout rips through the air. “Lazarus, come out!”
The whole world holds its breath. Then, under my feet, I sense a deep rumbling, as if the very foundations are cracking. Around me golden light shimmers through the sky like a July heatwave, burning into my trembling heart. Only now do I recognise the voice I thought I knew so well. It is the voice of the Rabbi I love, but also the one that called Adam from dust, that summons kings and commands angels. It is the voice of the Lord of heaven and earth.
A shadow moves deep in the tomb. As Lazarus stumbles into the light—trailing the grave clothes that my own hands had bound around him—terror pulses through the crowd.
The Rabbi’s gentle gaze finds my own as I turn to Him and sink to my knees, hiding my face in shame and fear. How could I have doubted Him…His times…His ways…His power? Me, an ignorant, foolish sinner. But he lifts me up with a smile.
“Unwrap him and let him go,” he whispers.
His earlier words echo into my heart: I am the resurrection and the life. This is the first day that Death has been forced to relinquish one of Jesus’ own. And joy replaces fear as I stare into my Lord’s eyes, knowing it will not be the last.
This story is based on John 11
Image: “Stairs In A Cave” by papaija2008 at www.freedigitalphotos.net