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“A Terrible Light”

By Neil Dhingra

At the midpoint of the Gospel of John, Jesus has healed one man who has been ill for 38 years (5:5) and another blind from birth (9:1); now he miraculously raises Lazarus, dead for four days, meaning that the soul can no longer remain close according to Jewish tradition (Lev Rabbah 18.1). This is a joyous event, and Jesus is soon present at a dinner at which the reanimated Lazarus is also there (12:2). But Jesus has already risked arrest (10:38), and now Caiaphas prophesies his death (10:51). At that joyous dinner, Jesus is anointed by Mary as if for burial (12:7), and we are reintroduced to Judas Iscariot, “the one who would betray him” (12:4). This will not be an easy path.

Besides the ominous element of danger, the raising of Lazarus itself may be more disconcerting than first appears. At British sculptor Jacob Epstein’s statue, Lazarus, at the chapel of New College, Oxford, theologian Austin Farrer spoke of the “cruel agony of reawaking” into a “light to which your painful eyes must strain on that day of tearful rebirth” — “a terrible light,” “the afflicting, the annihilating light of God.” While perhaps only Lazarus knows what it is like to come back to life after four days, when there is a “stench” (11:39), we are all called by that “terrible light” to be reborn from what may in comparison seem like the “relief” of death.

For Farrer, our response to that blinding light that raised Lazarus means praying in “prayerlessness,” even in our doubt, insincerity, and never-ending shallowness, with the faith that God’s light will eventually open our eyes, however tightly clenched shut they might be right now. After all, we do not struggle ourselves into life: “But none of us made himself, and none of us remakes himself, and death cannot achieve existence.” We can only give “consent to omnipresent predestination” that we trust will make us new.

However, I think the primary form of our own response is through baptism. Tellingly, before the Lazarus account, Jesus was “across the Jordan to the place where John first baptized” (10:40), also called “Bethany” (1:28). Before baptism, the person is in a state akin to Lazarus’ illness or death. Then, he or she receives instruction — here, as if by proxy, Martha’s acceptance that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life” (10:25). Finally, he or she is called to new life: “Lazarus, come out!” (10:43). Baptism, too, is a burial and a rebirth (Romans 6:3-11).

The decision to receive baptism often reflects something like the deep struggle depicted by Epstein’s Lazarus. Presumably, it was much easier for many earlier Christians to remain like Nicodemus, a “secret believer” who comes to Jesus only by night (3:2). As the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary Professor Charles H. Cosgrove has written, there is “a type of believer in John who acknowledges the claims of Jesus but shrinks from identifying with the Johannine community because he is not willing to risk participation in the violent suffering of Jesus.”

But, even in the face of danger, we really must be sacramentally reborn into what Cosgrove calls “an alien Life assuming alien shape in the world,” because that is where Jesus is. That’s where the “terrible light” leads us. This alien Life, though, is marked by continuous paradox. When Jesus was first told of Lazarus’ illness, he says it will not end in death but was “for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (11:4), but this glory is not at all what we usually think about as glory. Jesus will later, at the very moment of his betrayal — “And it was night” (13:30) — pronounce, “Now is the Son of Man glorified…” (13:31). Now?

The cruciform shape of this alien life, with its paradoxical glory, differentiates the church from other institutions. As Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey wrote, the church experiences only an “anticipated glory” of what will come to be, as Jesus, crucified and risen, comes again. To the world, in the meantime, this glory remains invisible. Only when Jesus returns will the world itself finally be “blinded” with “dazzling light.” The church cannot be about the “sinful glory of self-esteem,” that “personal distinction” that characterizes “glory in the pagan sense.” If the church forgets that it is presently incomplete, that its glory is eschatological, Ramsey warns, “the doctrine of the Church becomes the doctrine of an institution among other institutions upon the plane of history.” In other words, it becomes unrecognizable.

As Ramsey quotes 19th-century Bishop J.B. Lightfoot, “When you sank under the baptismal water, you disappeared for ever to the world. You rose again, it is true; but you rose only to God.”

Being reborn, then, is not easy. It is Lazarus being called to life by a “terrible light.” It is Farrer’s praying in (and out of) “prayerlessness.” It is accepting baptism when one wants to be safely like Nicodemus. The rebirth is to a strange, hidden, and often misunderstood life that takes cruciform shape. But this is where Jesus is, the “one flock” with “one shepherd” (10:16), a gathering that has been brought together by Jesus’ death, and this is where glory can be anticipated. One must simply, as Farrer says, give “consent to omnipresent predestination.” That “consent” is evident in the Lazarus story as Jesus seems to follow his Father’s time and reject all ordinary pressures, in this case to come to Lazarus as soon as possible, just like he had mysteriously told Mary, “My hour has not yet come” (2:4).

That consent, however, need not be grudging. Farrer says that God “woos” our consent “with sacrificial love.” There is an undeniable beauty to being reborn, even if it is not easy. It is the unexpected beauty of a life strangely shaped by humility, where “washing one another’s feet” (13:14) is no less than glorious.

Neil Dhingra is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.


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