The Raising of Lazarus, painted by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn circa 1630-1632, is another artwork that has captured my imagination. Rembrandt painted the stories of the Old and New Testaments in clear, understandable images. As Dutch Calvinism forbade religious art in churches, public commissions for paintings of biblical subjects were extremely scarce. However, many private commissions meant that patronage blossomed, which probably accounts for the dominance of religious subjects in Rembrandt’s work.
There is a certain poetic licence in today’s painting. Jesus is not standing outside the burial place and calling Lazarus to ‘come out’. In this artwork, Jesus is standing right in the catacomb and Lazarus is literally rising from his resting place; he looks as ghastly as we would expect. The people clustered around him are beautifully portrayed in their astonishment. The intense darkness of the cave make all the facial expressions of the onlookers even more prominent.
Christ is the central figure, his divine and human nature fully revealed. His bare feet portray his humanity and from his facial expression we can see that he has cried. Yet there is a quality of authority and determination on his face and his hand is raised to perform the miracle, pointing upwards, using his divine powers.
In addition there is what I would describe as a quirky extra, for on the right we have a quiver (reference to Psalm 127, ‘Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!’) and a scabbard (reference to Jeremiah 47:6, ‘Ah, sword of the Lord! How long till you are quiet? Put yourself into your scabbard; rest and be still!’). Who knows what was on Rembrandt’s mind when he included these random items in his protrayal of such a dramatic miracle?
Throughout his life, the actions and sayings of Jesus were also multifaceted and complex, and a closer reflection is always rewarding. For here in this painting, Lazarus and his sisters and friends equally share the ‘limelight.’ When Christ heals, it is not just for the sake of the one who is healed, but for the sake of others, for the whole community. Today’s reading is a perfect example of this. Jesus raised Lazarus for Mary and Martha. Raising Lazarus must have been ‘breaking news’ for a long time, even after Jesus had died a very public death. Mary and Martha told their story, and their story is for us too.
When we pray and ask for healing, whether spiritual, physical or emotional, it is never just for me, so that I feel better, so that my suffering is assuaged. Jesus gives us healing for the sake of those around us too, our family, our friends, our community. Through us, others are blessed.
The Lord be with you.