My favourite resurrection scene is the one in Scorsese’s movie The Last Temptation of Christ, when Jesus calls Lazarus from the grave. I like to think that if this story actually happened, it happened as Scorsese pictures it.
First off, Jesus is late. Because Jesus is always late. Like when Notre Dame almost burnt down. Or when white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans during a prayer service at an Episcopal Church in Charleston. Or when 50 people were burnt alive when a mob set fire to their church in Kenya. Or when 50 Muslims were massacred in Christchurch. If Jesus turned up at all to any of those events, he turned up late. Way too late to do anything about it.
That’s his M.O. The Bible says so. Here’s how The Message by Eugene Peterson tells it:
The sisters sent word to Jesus, “Master, the one you love so very much is sick.” When Jesus got the message, he said, “This sickness is not fatal. It will become an occasion to show God’s glory by glorifying God’s Son.” Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, but oddly, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed on where he was for two more days.
In other words, the sisters come to Jesus because they’re worried, and Jesus says, ‘Meh!’
This is why Bono, in the song Wake Up, Dead Man, sings this:
Jesus / Jesus help me / I’m alone in this world / And a fucked up world it is too / Tell me / Tell me the story / The one about eternity / And the way it’s all gonna be / Wake up / Wake up dead man / Wake up / Wake up dead man
In other words, Jesus has a track record. That’s how Scorsese depicts him too.
‘When was he buried?’ Jesus asks Martha, in The Last Temptation of Christ.
‘Three days ago,’ she says.
And I reckon she’s thinking, What does it matter when he was fucking buried — you’re late! Again!
Jesus looks at the stone covering the mouth of the tomb. He’s played by Willem Dafoe, who always looks deep in thought. What’s he thinking, we’re meant to wonder.
‘Hmm, that’s where I’m going to end up in the not-too-distant future.’
Maybe. But probably not. I reckon he’s thinking, ‘Three days … It’s gonna stink in there.’
They prise the stone away from the mouth of the tomb with poles, and sure enough, the stink bursts from the tomb like a wife’s onion fart in the middle of the night.
‘Aw, my mouth was open and everything,’ Jesus says.
Oh no, hang on, that was Donkey in Shrek.
In The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus says nothing — the stink is THAT BAD. Seriously, it’s like a scene from The Life Of Brian. Jesus gags first and covers his mouth. Then everyone else gags. They cover their mouths too, as if the convention of pretending something that smells really bad really doesn’t, no longer matters because the Son of God has almost thrown up in his mouth.
I once played this clip during a sermon in church. Afterwards, people complained about its lack of ‘biblical accuracy’ — because Jesus was the Son of God, he apparently had no sense of smell. My sermon was about the humanity of God. All anyone took away from that day was the question of whether Jesus could or could not smell farts, body odour, or garlic breath.
Anyway, they crack open the tomb, and suddenly even the guys with the poles are gagging. It’s like the smelliest place ever, and everyone from Willem Dafoe to the extra at the back who never gets to say anything is on the verge of being sick.
Even so, Jesus moves closer to the tomb — still covering his mouth and nose, of course, just in case we missed the point that there’s nothing sweet-smelling about death. There’s nothing ‘nice’ about resurrection. Lazarus has been dead three days. He’s already bloated. His skin has already changed colour. His body is already decomposing — like the old joke about the guy who finds zombie Beethoven down in the crypt, crossing out all his musical notations with a quill and ink.
‘What are you doing?’ the guy says.
‘I’m decomposing,’ says Beethoven.
Suddenly, Jesus thrusts forward his upturned hands. It looks kinda like a prayer, kinda like a gesture of pleading, but also authoritative, a gesture that is at once both empty but hopeful, a posture of begging but also one of power. And then he calls out the first time.
He whispers it. Cautiously.
Caution is the appropriate way to approach death. I know this from experience. I’ve written about it on this blog before — as I watched Jared Noel move inexorably closer to his own death, I felt the tendrils of the grave reaching down towards us from the corners of his room. I became convinced that death had agency, self-awareness, intent, and that once you’re in its sights it makes a move for you … pursues you like a predator whose fancy you’ve unwittingly taken. A week later I was lying in my own ‘death bed’, being told by doctors that I had a severe case of pancreatitis, and that there was nothing they could do but wait and see whether my body would self-correct … or whether I would die. I will never be arrogant in the face of death again.
I like cautious Jesus.
He calls out again. This time he uses his firm voice. It’s beautiful, this voice. Deep and resonant, projecting down into the darkness. It sounds full, this voice, full of the knowledge of his place in the universe, his authority/curiosity/audacity over this particular time and space. Sure, it’s Willem Defoe, but it’s affecting.
He lowers his voice again, this time as a sign of connection, of the privacy of mutuality, of the intimacy of encounter between Jesus and the dead man.
‘In the name of the prophet. In the name of Jeremiah and my Father, in the name of the most Holy God, I call you here.’
I love Willem Dafoe’s voice at this point. It cracks. It drums. It’s like my best morning radio voice after a night of red wine and cigars; the closest I will ever come to sounding like Johnny Cash.
He shouts again. Why? Because fucking Lazarus ain’t listening.
‘I CALL YOU HERE.’ Followed by another whisper: ‘Lazarus.’
Jesus bends down towards the darkness of the tomb, whispers the name Lazarus again. Then we, the audience, enter the very depths of that darkness, and it’s as we’re looking back up towards the light, back up towards the praying Jesus, that the absolute shit is scared out of us as Lazarus thrusts up his hand towards the way, the truth, and the life.
I have seen a hand like this, in the flesh. When I stood on the beach on September 27, 1996, after the cliff collapse, I began to dig with the volunteers, digging nine bodies from the sand and the limestone rocks. And I found the first one … its hand, anyway, reaching up from the sand just like the hand of Lazarus reaching up from the shadow of death, towards the one person who, in that time and place, might be able to make a difference. Except in my case, there was no Jesus, no Most Holy God, just me, in a suit and tie, stood next to the gardener from the Margaret River Primary School. We didn’t grab the hand, no fucking way — we shouted SHIT and jumped backwards, and when we looked again the hand had gone. Because the reality of our world is, when you reach out for help in your final moments, there ain’t no one to grab your hand and prevent it.
So, Lazarus reaches out … but in that moment, there are no guarantees. Lazarus is still mostly dead, like Westley in The Princess Bride in the woodland hut of Miracle Max. But even so, unlike Westley, he’s made the first, vital move … he’s extended an open hand towards the Lord.
But the Lord doesn’t know what to do. This is written all over his face. He’s shit-scared like the rest of us, like he’s thinking, ‘Okay, that was a good trick … but what next, guys?’ But they can’t help either … they are still standing outside, covering their mouths and noses from the stink.
The hand of Lazarus is swollen, yellow, stained with the grave … the last thing any self-respecting Son of God wants to touch. There’s also the whole ‘uncleanliness’ problem to consider. If Jesus the rabbi touches this hand, he’s fucked in the eyes of the law, the Sanhedrin, who are waiting to catch him out. He can be stoned to death himself for doing something so audacious as touching a dead body — even one that’s moving.
But he does it anyway, because that’s what Jesus-types do. They don’t give a fuck about the law when death is on the line (another Princess Bride reference, in case you missed it).
Jesus reaches down and his fingertips meet the fingertips of Lazarus, and for a moment it’s just like Michelangelo’s fresco, The Creation of Adam. But only for a moment … because as the zombie hand of Lazarus crawls upwards towards the wrist of Jesus like something out of The Walking Dead, Lazarus grips and twists the hand of the Lord and begins to pull him down, down towards the darkness of the grave.
I’ve had a moment like this too. Not with an actual dead person, but in a rip, in the ocean at Redgate in Margaret River, where I learnt to surf with Olympian Shane Gould. I was knocked off my board and fell into the strongest rip ever, just one metre from the sand, so that I foolishly thought I could fight the ocean and reach the shore in my own strength. I was wrong. And the feeling of defeat that came over me in a single moment is just like the look that comes over the face of Jesus, as he realises he’s made a big fucking mistake … Lazarus doesn’t want to be alive again — he just wants to pull the Son of God into the grave.
Jesus panics, submits, falls into the tomb … and the onlookers, who are no longer gagging or covering their mouths, think, ‘Oops. That was unexpected.’
And this is the aspect of resurrection that I’m thinking most about today, as I look at the memes all over Facebook about ‘Jesus Being Risen la di da di da’, like it’s no big deal, like it’s no big a deal than getting an extra Red Tulip Bunny Rabbit in your chocolate stash this morning. It’s not the Resurrection I have a problem with, or even the memes. It’s this truth:
WE DON’T WANT TO BE RAISED FROM THE DEAD.
No more than Lazarus in The Last Temptation of Christ. Even as the Lord of Life calls our name and extends his hand, we resist, and worse … we try to wrestle him into the grave.
How do I know? Because most of us aren’t even living in the first place.
So yeah, big fucking deal, Jesus rose from the dead to inaugurate a resurrection life. So what? We don’t want it. Life, this resurrection life, is presented to us every single day, and we turn our noses from it. I’m not talking about our day to day work, or the stuff that we do to keep busy, or the things we accumulate that give us anxiety and depression. I’m talking about real life … real love … real encounter … real creativity … real wonder … real spontaneity … moments and opportunities to dwell in a space with another and allow life to just happen, to flower up between and around us … to breathe air that is intoxicating in its fresh vitality … to quaff conversation that frightens us with its wild beauty … to gorge on connection that excites us with its volatility and unpredictability, but nevertheless gives us hope, makes us believe, reminds us that we are adored.
Every day I see and taste and know these moments … and I run from them … just as I see others back away from them too … or deny them … or control them … or destroy them. And I know, deep down, that this is the grave I’m seeing; this is the stinking tomb of Lazarus; this is the valley of the shadow of death.
So don’t tell me you love Easter Sunday. I don’t believe it. Don’t tell me how much you want to celebrate the resurrection. I don’t believe that either. Your words stink like the three-day old grave of the dead best friend of Jesus.
However … [Spoiler alert] … Jesus doesn’t stay in the depths of the tomb with Lazarus. He drags Lazarus out — he literally has to wrestle him from the grave because Lazarus doesn’t want to come. Ain’t that the thing about miracles? They’re always inconvenient.
‘Who are you to come and turn our water into wine? What if I just wanted to drink water tonight?’
Jesus holds zombie Lazarus in his arms. Keeps him upright. Stops him from dying all over again. The face of Lazarus is shrouded, and Jesus waits nervously, like the rest of us, as the zombie reaches up towards the shroud and pulls it aside. And suddenly there it is, the face of the once dead man, and we see that it’s the actor who played Quintus in Gladiator … it’s not Lazarus at all. But it’s near enough. And he’s only got one eye open, I suppose because it’s hard to open both eyes at the same time when you’ve been dead for three days. But even with one eye, Lazarus recognises Jesus. And he falls into his arms again.
‘Adonai,’ Jesus says, amazed. Lord.
And Lazarus says, ‘God help me.’
And why would he not?
Because Lazarus knows, as I know, that just because Jesus raised him from the dead, it does not mean that every day for the rest of his life he will not have to battle his own deep desire to return to the shadows of the tomb. Because that’s the very curse of what it is to be human … to deny life, even if it’s God who shows up to offer it.