Reading Dostoyevsky on Lazarus Saturday

The Saturday that falls on the week before Easter is dedicated to Lazarus, the man whom Jesus raised from the dead. The account of this miracle is found in John 11.

The commemoration of this miracle occupies such a prominent place in the Lent calendar because of the Orthodox church’s emphasis on the bodily resurrection. We do not believe, as some do, that the soul leaves to an ephemeral existence in the sky. Rather the sick, decaying, dead parts of both our physical and spiritual selves will be renewed and redeemed in the last days. The end of the Christian story is not an escape from a physical world that is doomed to destruction, but rather its restoration, as all the broken things of this planet are made right in the victorious coming of the Kingdom of God.

The story of Lazarus thus serves both as a foreshadowing of Christ’s resurrection, and a promise that we also will be resurrected with Him.

The story of Lazarus occurs prominently in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. In particular, Lazarus is central in a powerful, beautiful scene near the end of the book, when everything is falling apart. The doomed murderer asks the despised prostitute to read the story of Lazarus, and an entire chapter contains just that: she reads the whole of John 11, as he begs and urges her on, overwhelmed by his feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and desperation. And from her tattered Bible she reads it, haltingly at first, but gradually gaining in conviction. And in this, one of the grimmest works in literature, a shining beacon of hope.

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The simplicity of that chapter in Crime and Punishment is rather remarkable. Large portions of it are just lifted directly from John 11. For most of the way through the chapter, you are reading a book about Sonia reading a book. But the power of the Lazarus story is such that this scene did not need any elaboration.

Lazarus means that the resurrection of Christ is not an isolated event. We all will be resurrected with him. Therefore we need not live as if our possessions and comfort in this life are the only things that matter. Even if we lose them all, up to the point of losing life and limb, we know that all that we have lost will be restored to us. This gives us the freedom to choose to do the right thing, even when it is costly- as the murderer has to do at the end of Crime and Punishment, in response to that reading of the Lazarus story.

The miracle in Bethany  overturned the tragedy of Lazarus’ death. Sonia’s reading of John 11 gave hope to the tragedy of Rodya’s self-destruction. Lazarus promises hope also to our tragedies. The Christian promise is not an escape from tragedy, but a victory over it.

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