Not long after he begins his long journey to the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo Baggins comes with his friends to Rivendell, which J.R.R. Tolkien calls as “the Last Homely House.” (Homely here means “home-like.”) In this house, weary travelers enjoy the hospitality and rest of Elrond’s home before they enter the wilderness beyond.
The home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany must have felt like a similar retreat for Jesus and the disciples. It seems to have provided a familiar and friendly oasis during Jesus’ years of ministry, as the siblings do not hesitate to send word to Jesus when Lazarus falls ill. They seem to have expected him to respond as well. The subsequent raising of Lazarus becomes a key miracle in Jesus’ ministry, one that puts him on a collision course with the religious authorities in Jerusalem.
Not surprisingly, then, Bethany provides a last respite before Jesus and the disciples go on to the wilderness of Jerusalem and the lonely “mountain” of Golgotha that lay at journey’s end. Here they enjoyed food and fellowship, and possibly the disciples were able to forget for a few minutes what Jesus had said they would find in Jerusalem: persecution, suffering, death. Here, too, according to Matthew and John, Jesus is anointed before he enters Jerusalem to the kingly welcome of palms waving and cries of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Because Passion Week contains one of the church calendar’s two poles (the other is Christmas), it makes sense for us to consider how it begins for Jesus himself—both privately and publicly.
02. History and Celebration
Near the end of Great Lent, the Church enjoys a brief respite from the sorrow and mourning that characterizes the fast. It’s almost as if the betrayal and suffering that will occur during the week gets a triumphant and hopeful prelude in these two days, and both days presage essential truths that will be fully realized the following Sunday.
03. Lazarus Saturday
Lazarus Saturday commemorates the raising of Lazarus, a miracle only recorded in John’s Gospel. Despite this single witness, the raising of Lazarus is a central component of Jesus’ life and ministry, the last of John’s signs of Jesus’ messianic identity. It’s also one of Jesus’ best-known miracles, in part because it receives the fullest narrative treatment of any miracle in the Gospels.
The story will likely be familiar. Lazarus of Bethany falls ill, and his sisters send word to Jesus. When he hears, he waits two more days to go to Bethany. When he finally arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days. Mary and Martha both express their grief and frustration with Jesus’ delay, but also their belief in him. Jesus goes to the tomb, where he weeps openly. He commands the stone at the cave’s mouth to be removed, prays aloud, and then calls for Lazarus. The dead man comes out, bound in the graveclothes, which Jesus commands them to remove.
The miracle creates an incredible stir. Some likely come to genuine belief in Jesus as Messiah (John 11:45). Some are ready to enthrone Jesus immediately, and they likely form the crowds who welcome Jesus to Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. Others report to the religious council, who make plans to kill him that will culminate in his arrest, trial, and crucifixion at the end of Holy Week (verse 53).
So much can be said about this story, from the obvious love and friendship that Jesus enjoys with Lazarus and his sisters to Caiaphas’s inadvertent prophecy that Jesus’ death would save the nation. But let us turn now to what John says occurs on the Saturday before Palm Sunday.
First, this would have been the Sabbath, so Jesus appears to have celebrated the Sabbath meal with his friends at Bethany. John makes a point of reminding his readers about Lazarus, “whom Jesus had raised from the dead” (John 12:1). Martha serves the meal to Jesus, who reclines with Lazarus at the table. Second, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with a pound of outrageously expensive ointment—three hundred denarii was nearly a year’s wages. Jesus says the act was to prepare him for burial. Third, the raising of Lazarus created such a stir that some plotted to kill him as well as Jesus.
In practical terms, Great Lent ends on Friday. The church’s Vespers Hymn that evening invites all to “see the holy week of [Jesus’] passion, that in it we may glorify [his] greatness and [his] unspeakable plan of salvation.” On Lazarus Saturday, the church begins its observation of Pascha, or Easter. Lazarus Saturday is a paschal, or Easter, celebration, the only non-Sunday of the year when the Orthodox church celebrates its usual resurrection-focused Sunday service. Lazarus, after all, embodies Jesus’ startling claim to Mary: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26. ESVAll Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). Beginning with Lazarus reminds us that at the end of all things, we will join Lazarus in experiencing resurrection because of Jesus’ words and deeds.
The celebration of Lazarus Saturday is ancient, as the pilgrimage taken by Egeria in the fourth century records the practice in Jerusalem.
And when the morning of the Sabbath begins to dawn, the bishop offers the oblation. And at the dismissal the archdeacon lifts his voice and says: “Let us all be ready to‑day at the seventh hour in the Lazarium.” And so, as the seventh hour approaches, all go to the Lazarium, that is, Bethany, situated at about the second milestone from the city.
In Bethany, those gathered sang psalms and hymns, and they read the passage of the Gospel that announces Jesus’ visit to Bethany (John 12:1). With this, Egeria writes, “notice is given of Easter.” She continues, “This is done because, as it is written in the Gospel, these events took place in Bethany six days before the Passover.” In other words, the church attempted to begin the week with Jesus, recalling his words and deeds in Bethany.
“Notice is given of Easter.” Those words are a fitting summary of Lazarus Saturday’s observance. With the raising of Lazarus, “the Four-Days Dead,” Jesus gave notice of his power and identity, as well as the ultimate aim of his ministry. That notice extends to us, too. As St. Augustine writes, “[Jesus] did not merely do miracles for the miracles’s sake; but in order that the things which He did should inspire wonder in those who saw them, and convey truth to them who understand.” The observance of Lazarus Saturday allows the church to begin a week of terrible remembrances with wonder and understanding.
The notice goes, as well, to those who are defeated by Jesus’ death. Lazarus’s raising puts on notice the Enemy of our souls, the one who would steal, kill, and destroy. The Canon of Lazarus, sung on Lazarus Sunday and written by St. Andrew of Crete in the seventh century, captures this in two of its odes:
The palaces of Hell were shaken, when in its depths Lazarus began once more to breathe, straightway restored to life by the sound of Thy voice. (Second Ode)
Now am I destroyed utterly, Hell cried out, and thus he spoke to Death: See, the man from Nazareth has shaken the lower world, and cutting open my belly he has called a lifeless corpse and raised it up. (Third Ode)
04. Palm Sunday
The more familiar end to Lent, observed in nearly all Christian churches, is Palm Sunday. In the Eastern Church, it is one of the twelve major feasts. It recalls the day after Jesus shares a meal with his friends in Bethany, the day he enters Jerusalem in kingly fashion, an event usually called the Triumphal Entry and recorded in all four Gospels.
The basic outline is this: As Jesus nears Jerusalem, he sends the disciples to borrow a donkey. He rides into the city (fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy), and the people spread their cloaks and palm branches on the road. The crowds shout a variety of messianic greetings: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he (or ‘the King’) who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” Both Luke and John make it clear that the crowds have seen Jesus’ mighty works. John goes further, saying that the raising of Lazarus was “the reason why the crowd went to meet him” (John 12:18).
Though the events are straightforward, they are heavy with meaning. This and every Palm Sunday celebration since focuses attention on Jesus’ kingship. The people shout hosanna—which means something like “Please, save us!”—because they believe the person coming has the power to save them. Jesus really is the rightful King, the heir of David, and he is the embodiment of God’s promise of salvation. Yet he has inverted some of the expected imagery, arriving not on a war horse but on a donkey. This directly fulfills a prophecy in Zechariah that reads,
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).
Only a king, someone with the power to save, can accept “hosanna” as the praise it is. And Jesus does, even telling some who are critical that “if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40).
The celebration of Palm Sunday has at least as ancient a pedigree as Lazarus Saturday. Egeria, again, writes that the church in Jerusalem observed Palm Sunday with much celebration.
The day’s services began at midday at the Mount of Olives, and then the people followed the bishop to the place of Jesus’ Ascension. At the eleventh hour (about 5 p.m.) the bishop read the passage about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. After this,
The bishop immediately rises, and all the people with him, and they all go on foot from the top of the Mount of Olives, all the people going before him with hymns and antiphons, answering one to another: Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. And all the children in the neighborhood, even those who are too young to walk, are carried by their parents on their shoulders, all of them bearing branches, some of palms and some of olives, and thus the bishop is escorted in the same manner as the Lord was of old. For all, even those of rank, both matrons and men, accompany the bishop all the way on foot in this manner, making these responses, from the top of the mount to the city, and thence through the whole city to the Anastasis, going very slowly lest the people should be wearied.
We have said before that observing the calendar in community provides a way to enact the life of Jesus, to see the stories, to hear the parables afresh, to marvel at the miracles. Palm Sunday is no exception. Even today, children carry palm branches in many churches’ services, and many include the whole congregation. It’s a powerful reminder that Jesus is not just the King of the Jews, but our King, the one who can and will save us.
Palm Sunday looks forward to the day when Jesus’ kingship will make everything sad untrue. But it offers a present application, too. It calls upon us to live as subjects of this humble but triumphant king, to find our identity in Christ and his kingdom.
The invitation requires us to face the truth about the world. Jesus is King, and we are his subjects. But we must remember that many of the voices acclaiming Jesus as Messiah on Sunday would be accusing him as a traitor just a few days later. Their cries of ‘Hosanna!’ would give way to shouts of ‘Crucify!’ We are invited to look on him, our king, just as that crowd did.
In a way, the liturgies that begin Passion Week require us to reckon with Jesus’ pointed questions about himself. On Lazarus Saturday, after declaring that he is resurrection and life, Jesus asks Mary, “Do you believe this?” We are invited to answer with her: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (John 11:26–27).
Palm Sunday invites us to go a step further, to sing his praises in public, to throw ourselves and our communities on his kingly mercy. As one morning hymn puts it,
With our souls cleansed and in spirit carrying branches, with faith let us sing Christ’s praises like the children, crying with a loud voice to the Master: Blessed art Thou, O Savior, who hast come into the world to save Adam from the ancient curse; and in Thy love for mankind Thou hast been pleased to become spiritually the new Adam. O Word, who hast ordered all things for our good, glory to Thee. (A Sessional hymn of the Orthros)
As we look ahead to Passion Week, God grants us the hope we need to endure with Jesus. And as he always does, he gives us himself in Jesus Christ, the righteous king who entered Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt, who frees us from the power of sin and death in his Cross, and who will raise us on the last day as he did our brother Lazarus.
- Set aside some time for devotional reading on Lazarus Saturday. You can download the nine verses of St Andrew’s Canon of Lazarus here. (It begins on page 4.) If you’d like to hear it sung, 4 of the odes are chanted in this video.
- One of the Greek traditions associated with Lazarus Saturday is the baking of lazarakia, sweet buns reminiscent of hot cross buns that are shaped like Lazarus. If you’re inclined to baking, they are fairly easy to make. You can find one recipe here.
- If your church uses palm branches for Palm Sunday, you might consider setting the branches aside. It’s common in some traditions to burn the branches to make the ashes used in the next year’s Ash Wednesday service. It serves as a powerful connection between years, reminding participants that repentance, for the Christian, is cyclical.