Wednesday 2nd July 2014

This morning a couple of us visited Al-Azariyeh, the contemporary Arabic name for the New Testament town of Bethany. The name derives from an Arabic variant of the name “Lazarus”. Lazarus is well-known from the following dramatic account in the Gospel of John:

The Death of Lazarus
11 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Jesus the Resurrection and the Life
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Jesus Weeps
28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

The Plot to Kill Jesus
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” 51 He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53 So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

54 Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.
(Jn 11:1-54)

N.B. Please note that biblical scholarship confirms that the pejorative references to “the Jews” in this text do not refer to all Jews indiscriminately, of that time or of any subsequent time, but rather only to those Jewish authorities of that time who actively conspired against Jesus to have the Romans put him to death. Also, the text reflects the emerging animosity between Jews and Christians at the time this Gospel was written, around about a 100 years after the event, rather than of the time when Jesus lived and died. Consequently, (contrary to the abuse and misuse of scripture in past centuries that condoned and actively promoted pogroms, ghettoisation and persecution of Jews), any attempt to justify discrimination against the Jews has no basis in scripture.

Bethany, the place where Lazarus was raised from the dead, used to be only a 20 minute walk from Jerusalem (the above account says it was only “two miles from Jerusalem”, so Jesus presumably walked there often to visit his friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus!). However, the controversial wall between Israel and Palestinian West Bank has cut the direct road access from the Mount of Olives. Now one can no longer walk from Jerusalem to Bethany, but must take a bus which goes north through the checkpoint on the Jerusalem-Jericho road and then turns south to come along the other side of the wall. It is a 45 minute bus ride.

The bus driver dropped us at the stop in front of the Church of Lazarus. We walked a short distance up the road to the site that traditionally is identified as the tomb of Lazarus.

Pilgrim standing outside the tomb of Lazarus

Pilgrim standing outside the tomb of Lazarus

The tomb is carved deep into the rock of the hillside. There are 27 steep steps down into the tomb.

Steps down into the tomb of Lazarus in al-Azariyeh/Bethany

Steps down into the tomb of Lazarus in al-Azariyeh/Bethany

One arrives at a vestibule, in the floor of which there is an opening in the rock wall which gives visual access to the burial chamber. Set in the floor there are a further couple of steps going down and under a very low entrance into a funeral chamber. I virtually had to crawl to get through. Here is a view of that entrance:

From the vestibule looking through the entrance set in the floor to the burial chamber another 3 steps below.

From the vestibule looking through the entrance set in the floor to the burial chamber another 3 steps below.

The brightness you can see shining through the upper opening to the tomb is not the afterglow from Lazarus’ resurrection, but the glare of the electric light which had been switched on for us so that we would not be left in pitch darkness! Having wormed my way through the entrance, there is a spacious chamber some two metres square and three metres tall with burial vaults in the walls.

Pilgrim standing inside the burial chamber in the tomb of Lazarus

Pilgrim standing inside the burial chamber in the tomb of Lazarus

We read the above account from John’s Gospel of the raising of Lazarus from the dead and reflected in silence for a while. Incidentally, technically speaking, this Lazarus event is not “resurrection” from the dead, but rather “resuscitation” from the dead; he was raised from the dead but had to die again; he was still subject to the law of death; but Jesus is the first and only person who is resurrected; he lives and dies no more.

Having reflected on the Gospel passage, we prayed for the deceased members of our family, friends and relatives. I remembered in particular my brother, John. Then we made our way up again towards the light of day.

Climbing back up the stairs from the tomb of Lazarus

Climbing back up the stairs from the tomb of Lazarus

There is a Greek Orthodox Church on the road just above the site of the tomb, a Muslim mosque, the al-Uzair Mosque (another Arabic variant for “Lazarus”), on the road immediately below the tomb, and beyond that there is the Latin Catholic Church of St Lazarus. In fact, the construction of the mosque severed the previous entrance from the church so that the “new” entrance through which we had entered had to be made. On this site, as in so many others, there are claims of very early devotion, which lead to the the construction of a Byzantine church, later destroyed, then a Crusader church, also destroyed, and the modern church.

The Greek Orthodox Church was closed but we were able to visit the Catholic Church.

Facade of the Church of St Lazarus, with mosaics of, from left to right, Mary, Lazarus and Martha

Facade of the Church of St Lazarus, with mosaics of, from left to right, Mary, Lazarus and Martha

Close-up of the mosaic of Lazarus on the facade of the Church of St Lazarus, Bethany

Close-up of the mosaic of Lazarus on the facade of the Church of St Lazarus, Bethany

There were more mosaics on the inside, depicting various scenes from the Gospel that are recorded as having taken place in Bethany, especially those in relation to Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

The interior of the Church of St Lazarus. The mosaic in the centre above the sanctuary is of Jesus saying to Martha, "I am the Resurrection and the Life" (Jn 11:25).

The interior of the Church of St Lazarus. The mosaic in the centre above the sanctuary is of Jesus saying to Martha, “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (Jn 11:25).

Here is the mosaic of the raising of Lazarus from the dead:

Mosaic of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, Church of St Lazarus, Bethany

Mosaic of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, Church of St Lazarus, Bethany

Another mosaic presents an image for the following account from Luke’s Gospel:

Jesus Visits Martha and Mary
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

For many years this text was used (mis-used!) to claim the superiority of the religious life over the active life!! In reality, both are necessary, both are equally valid. The contemplative life and the active life are complementary. Contemplative life gets lost in false religiosity if it does not concern the needs of the poor and of the world; active life loses its way in sterile activism if it is not informed and empowered by a genuine spiritual dimension.

Mosaic of Martha and Mary with Jesus

Mosaic of Martha and Mary with Jesus

Another mosaic picks up the event mentioned in John 11:2 above, the anointing of Jesus by Mary. Here is the account from John’s Gospel:

Mary Anoints Jesus
12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (Jn 12:1-8)

For information on the history, details and more pictures of the Church of St Lazarus see:

Besides visiting the tomb and the church, we walked a little distance further up the road and put our hands on the controversial wall that separates and divides the people of this land. I had seen it when I visited Bethlehem nearly three weeks ago. I had seen it yesterday from the Mount of Olives (see previous post). It is claimed to be an effective security which has reduced terrorist incidents. You can see how impenetrable and formidable it is.

Pilgrim standing against the wall that separates and divides the people of this land

Pilgrim standing against the wall that separates and divides the people of this land

Whatever the merits and demerits of the wall/security barrier, it is sad that in the 21st century resort is made to such an instrument of exclusion. We hope and pray for the day when all peoples of this land can live in peace and security and there will be no need for walls.

To highlight the terrible insecurity that is at times palpable here, in the last couple of days we read the gruesome news that the dead bodies of three Israeli teenagers who had been kidnapped two weeks ago near Hebron had been found in a shallow grave. Their funeral was yesterday. Today there are reports that the dead body of a young Palestinian teenager who was kidnapped yesterday from a place just north of the city, has been found in the Jerusalem Forests. Today, in his home town, there have been rock-throwing protests by Palestinian youths and retaliatory firing of rubber bullets by Israeli defence forces. There has been damage to public transport facilities which then had to be suspended. As a result of all of the above, areas of high-tension are under heightened security and travel to such places is not recommended.

The cycle of violence and reprisals escalates and makes peace seem impossible. However, we live by faith, not by sight. All people want to live in peace and security. May God move the hearts and minds of the peoples and leaders so that they may forsake the law of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and follow the higher way of service to the common good.

While the protests are localised and did not affect us directly, in our visit to Bethany we experienced the “conflict” that divides this land in a much more generalised way. In our observation, compared with the Israeli side of the wall/security barrier, the area on the West Bank looked poorer, more run-down and dirtier. We experienced a further dimension of the exclusion and mistrust on our return bus trip. When we passed through the check-point between the West Bank and Israel, all Palestinians under the age of 50(?) had to get off the bus to have their ID cards checked; those over the age limit remained on the bus while Israeli defence personnel came aboard and checked their ID cards; we foreign nationals had to present our passports.

We hope and pray for the day when all peoples may live and travel freely in peace and security.

Shalom, Peace, Salaam!!!


One thought on “Bethany

  1. Ron

    Thank you for this article !

    “And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them…” (Luke 24)

    “Has He, victoriously,
    Burst from the vaulted
    Grave, and ail-gloriously
    Now sits exalted ?
    Is He, in glow of birth,
    Rapture creative near ?
    Ah ! to the woe of earth
    Still are we native here.
    We, His aspiring
    Followers, Him we miss ;
    Weeping, desiring.
    Master, Thy bliss…”


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