The Saturday before Palm Sunday is commemorated as the Saturday of Lazarus.
In our hymns, we refer to Lazarus as “the friend of Christ” and “the four days dead.” This Saturday is celebrated with a Divine Liturgy in honor of Lazarus and his resurrection, which serves as a type of not only Christ’s resurrection from the dead (Pascha or Easter, the following Sunday), but also our own resurrection on the Last Day.
St. Macarius of Egypt connects the death and raising of Lazarus with the death and raising of Adam—a raising that occurs in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, along with our union with him in the mysteries of the Church:
Lazarus also, whom the Lord raised, who stank so that no one could go near the sepulchre, was a symbol of Adam whose soul had come to stink and was filled with blackness and darkness. But thou, when thou hearest of Adam, and the wounded man, and Lazarus, let not thy mind go off as it were to the hills, but be thou within in thy soul, for thou thyself bearest the same wounds, the same stench, the same darkness. We all are his sons, of that dark race, and all partake of the same stench. The malady from which he suffered, we all, who are of Adam’s seed, suffer from the same. Such a malady has befallen us, as Esaias says, ‘It is not a wound, nor a bruise, nor an inflamed sore; it is not possible to apply a mollifying ointment, nor oil, nor to make bandages.’ [Isa. 1:6 LXX] Thus were we wounded with an incurable wound; the Lord alone could heal it. For this reason He came in His own person; because none of the ancients, nor the law itself, nor the prophets, were able to heal this wound. He alone by His coming healed that sore of the soul, that incurable sore. —Homily 30.8
The Gospel for this feast reminds of the loving compassion of God towards humanity, and especially towards his friends.
Lazarus hailed from the small town of Bethany, “the home of the Phoenicians.” His sisters were Mary and Martha, and our Lord spent a good deal of time there. Some have speculated that the leper healed by Christ was Lazarus’ father. When Jesus hears about Lazarus’ illness, he calmly responds:
This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.
According to Fr. Thomas Hopko, the Lazarus narrative (chapter eleven) forms the heart of John’s Gospel, crucial in establishing the divinity of Christ. But beyond showing us the love of God and the deity of Christ, it also reminds us of the future awaiting mankind in the final resurrection.
Of Martha, Christ asks:
I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?
Martha’s response serves as the starting point for our pre-communion prayers to this day: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”
Even in his very name, the promise of his resurrection is found (אלעזר or Eleazar, ‘God is my help’). God himself came to the aid of Lazarus—the friend of God who would be helped by God.
After the ascension of Christ, Lazarus continued on this earth another thirty years. When persecution arose, Lazarus relocated to Cyprus, an island once home to the Greek philosopher Zeno. While there, the apostles Paul and Barnabas appointed him as the first bishop of Kition. Incidentally, the bishop’s thrones in Larnaca have an icon of St. Lazarus—instead of the most-common icon of Jesus, vested as a bishop—something unique to the local church of Cyprus.
Lazarus reportedly had little to say in his final years, rarely smiled (perhaps due to things witnessed in hades), and lived a quiet and peaceful life. The only sense of humor that he is recorded to have displayed was when he saw a man stealing a clay pot. To him, he remarked: “The clay steals the clay.”
When Lazarus reposed (for the second time), he was buried in a marble tomb on Cyprus. A church was constructed over his relics, the Church of Saint Lazarus (Larnaca). On his tomb, it is written:
The Fourth Day Lazarus, a Friend of Christ.
His relics were transferred to Constantinople in 898 by Emperor Leo VI. They remained in Constantinople until the Fourth Crusade (A.D. 1204), taken by the Western Crusaders and then eventually lost.
His Apolytikion, still sung by the Orthodox Church, declares:
O Christ our God, before Your Passion, You raised Lazarus from the dead to confirm the common Resurrection for all. Therefore, we carry the symbols of victory as did the youths, and we cry out to You, the victor over death, “Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”