The raising of Lazarus

Raising of Lazarus

Lazarus and his sisters are family friends and while Jesus is in the area of His baptism, he gets a message that Lazarus is ill.  Jesus delays going there convinced that by so doing He will be able to do something even more remarkable than by heading death off at the Pass.  Four days after Lazarus dies Jesus turns up at Bethany near Jerusalem on the Jericho road.  According to custom and Law, Lazarus is already entombed.  Jesus states that the stone should be removed from the tomb entrance.  Quite reasonably Martha objects.  Lazarus, remember, had been sick for a long time, in an age without antibiotics.  The death, we are told, is related to disease and not a fracture, thus we can reasonably ascertain that decay was long advanced before Lazarus died, never mind the extent of decay in the heat of a Middle Eastern sun four days post mortality.  The anticipated whiff of putrefaction must have been terrifying.  Following Jesus shouting for Lazarus to come out,  Lazarus emerges, oil embalmed, cloth bound, shuffling and staggering into the


Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey

Christ enters Jerusalem  

Whilst Jesus regularly went to Jerusalem to teach and attend the Temple, all four gospels record Jesus arriving at Jerusalem on a donkey in order to celebrate the Passover, when the Israelites were spared the Angel of Death by marking on their door lintels the blood of a lamb. This took place in the month of Nisan (around March - April), a month during which many momentous events in Jewish history have taken place Recent studies have suggested March 30th AD 33 as the probable date.

During the Passover, animals were donated to the Temple free for use by any holy man in service to God. They were gifts made as part of a mitzvah (something done freely for the benefit of others that would bring the giver closer to God). Thus, whenever any man was seen riding just such one of these donkeys during the Passover they would be recognised by the crowd as an important and holy person. 

Five days before the Passover began (a Monday) Jesus sent disciples to fetch one of these animals and as He rode into Jerusalem He was welcomed by crowds waving Palm branches and spreading clothing in His path. Palm branches represented both joy and triumph to Israelis at the time, and the practice of laying clothes in the path was one afforded to kings. Jesus was recognised as the one Who had brought back Lazarus from death and as such enormous expectations were held of Him by the Israelis.  This excitement was viewed rather dimly by the Pharisees and Sadducees as their own influence and power over devout Jews was diminishing before their eyes, an opinion confirmed by what happened when Jesus arrived at the Temple.

To fulfill the requirements of Passover, strict rules are laid out for the cleansing not only of houses but also of the Temple. Over time, trading in the Temple had evolved to include not only legitimate businesses selling livestock for sacrifice (lambs doves etc) but also traders selling stolen shoddy and second hand goods.  The equivalent would be a car boot sale taking place in St Peter's Basilica!  It was rage at this that sent Jesus trashing the stalls holders in the Temple.

After this Jesus left Jerusalem and made His way to Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem where archeology has found that it was populated heavily by Essenes, a community to which Jesus has been frequently linked, where He remained to hold the Last Supper which was, according to some scholars, possibly a Seder.  Some say that it was common at the time for Seders to take place over a period of days rather than on one particular day, and the Last Supper is held to have taken place on the Wednesday.  Others confidently say that this would have taken place on just one day, 15th Nisan, in accordance with the day set out by the Torah. The Talmud relates that one of the recurring miracles was that everyone had room to prostrate themselves on Yom Kippur when the High Priest pronounced the Name of God, even though there was barely enough room for everyone to stand.  The Temple had very strict rules as to how people entered and left the Temple on Pesach, and how many were let in at a time, so that everyone could sacrifice their lambs in the Temple courtyard on the afternoon of the 14th, as required by law, without any crushes occurring.  It is estimated that perhaps as many as a million people were in Jerusalem during Pesach, Shavuos and Succos.

The Crucifixion

The Crucifixion

In his early thirties, Jesus of Nazareth was crucifiedunder Roman Law by edict of Pontius Pilate (reluctantly it is believed) who had been placed in an impossible political position by the Pharisees and Sadducees.  According to Roman Law, the crimes for which a prisoner was crucified were nailed on a board above their head.  Because Jerusalem was a polyglot society, criminals had their crimes written in the three main languages of that society.  Thus, Pilate had ordered that in Greek, Latin and Hebrew was written 'Jesus of Nazareth.  King of the Jews'.  Jerusalem was politically legally culturally and ethnographically cosmopolitan.  It was this richness of population that deemed that we know Christ by His Greek Name (Jesus) and not by His Hebrew Name (Joshua Bar Joseph).  His crucifixion took place on a Friday, and concern was raised that He wouldn't be dead by dusk on Friday, as that was the beginning of the Shabbes. 

Jewish Law stipulated that there should be no one still alive on a cross by the time the Shabbes began. Jewish law forbids crucifixion, indeed, Jews revolted more than once when the Romans, within Judea, crucified people.  Jewish law stipulates that, if a man is hung, his body is brought down by nightfall.  Jewish law also stipulates that the dead are buried within 24 hours of death, and that no one is left unburied over Shabbes. 

Crucifixion was a slow painful and lingering death, occasionally made easier by those compassionate enough in the crowd (often family members or friends)  passing up a hypnotic drug contained in vinegar suspended in a sponge. Despite being offered a sponge, Jesus refused this aid.  Death in this way placed enormous strain on the cardiac and pulmonary systems.  As the arms are stretched by the weight of the body, the rib cage is impaired from movement leading to slow suffocation.  To spread the torture and punishment out a little longer, prisoners had their ankles bound or nailed to a ledge upon which they could push themselves to help their breathing.  This in turn added to their pain as they were pushing against the nails in their ankles.  Eventually weakened by all this they died, sometimes days later.  To avoid being left till after the Sabbath, Roman soldiers were instructed to break the bones to hasten death by preventing them from breathing longer.  Unusually, Jesus had died by this time and the soldiers instead thrust a spear into his abdomen, from which fluid drained. This fluid is quite possibly a product of Congestive Heart Failure and Pulmonary Oedema caused by the crucifixion, where the heart being unable to pump effectively, backed up blood and fluid decreasing the volume of blood the heart could pump round, leading to fluid building up in the lungs.

The crucified were stripped naked to compound their humiliation, though Christian art applies modesty to the depiction.  Everything possible was done to make the torture of crucifixion as cruel as possible.  The condemned were made to carry the instrument of their death through the streets,  witnessed by the crowds,  outside the city walls to the place of execution.  On the day in question, we know of two others who were crucified with Jesus. As the condemned were being prepared for death, it was a perk of the job for the soldiers on duty to divide the possessions the condemned among them.  

In particular Jesus was stripped of his expensive seamless robe which was woven top to bottom and was identical to that worn by Priests serving in the Temple. It is unclear if it was the techelet,which was 12 ply sky blue dyed wool,  or, possibly more likely, made of six ply woven white flax, the sort of robe the High Priest would have worn on the Day of Atonement.  The High Priest would have two sets, one for use in the morning and one in the evening, and he only wore these once. The robe was a closed garment and slipped on over the head. The opening at the neck was round, with a hem that was doubled over and closed by weaving-not by a needle. The garment hung down in front and in back, and its length extended all the way down to the priest's feet. There is a difference of opinion as to whether there were sleeves, but if so these would also have been seamless and attached separately.

(Incidentally, this robe is akin to the same as the robe worn by patriarch Joseph but, due to an oft repeated mistranslation, was called a "coat of many colours", and was in fact white).

St Susanna

St Susanna the Myrrh Bearer

This Susanna refers to the Susanna mentioned in Luke's gospel chapter 8. This is the only time she is mentioned by name in the gospels, but it is assumed by the church that when 'The women' (Luke 23) came to anoint the body of Jesus, Susanna was one of them. 

The crucifixion took place on a Friday, just before the beginning of the Jewish Shabbes (sabbath), and in accord with the strict traditions of the time there was no time to fulfill all the burial customs of Jewish Law. As such, Jesus was laid in a borrowed tomb to await the time after the Shabbes had ended for the burial customs to be completed. Thus it was that, at dawn on Sunday, a group of women arrived at the tomb laden with the necessary articles to complete the burial rites according to Jewish law and custom.  Among the items necessary for this purpose was Myrrh.

The origins of this can be found as far back as Exodus (30:22-25, 32-33). Myrrh is a reddish resin that oozes and is dried from species of the genus Commiphora, which are native to northeast Africa and the adjacent areas of the Arabian Peninsula. Commiphora myrrha, a tree commonly used in the production of myrrh, can be found in the shallow, rocky soils of Ethiopia, Kenya, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. Thus, we know it was expensive as it had to arrive in Israel from across such lengthy trade routes. To make into oil this dried sap has to be distilled.

Arriving at the tomb, the 'myrhh-bearing women' (as they are usually called in Orthodox texts) found that the tomb was empty. It was thus not Jesus's male followers, but the women who had cared for him, who were the first witnesses of the resurrection, and in Orthodoxy this group of women have a far higher profile than in any strand of Western Christianity.

The descent from the cross

The Descent from the Cross

To avoid transgressing the rules of the Shabbes (they would have hurried home for the Sabbath meal because one does not mourn on the Sabbath) Jesus was taken down from the cross, wrapped in a linen shroud and taken to a tomb owned by a man named Joseph. In Orthodoxy we remember this at every liturgy, and at Pascha we mark the event by the sung words of "Noble Joseph,having taken down the body of Jesus from the cross, wrapped it in linen and spices and laid it in the tomb".  At Pascha on Good Friday the church becomes the tomb and the altar the site of crucifixion, when during that service the shroud bearing the image of Christ is brought from the altar to the place laid out in honour and decorated with flowers as though Joseph himself, with the followers of Jesus, were bringing it themselves.

As Christianity spread across the world, pagan rites and practices were adopted by clergy and missionaries to enfold cultures into Christianity.  This in many way is why Mary hold the position she does in Christian tradition.  The cult of Mary is simply a reflection of how Christianity enfolded old religions worshipping fertility goddesses into the Christian perspective so as to make it easy for pagans to be converted. Acts 17:16 - 34 describes how Paul preached to Athenians about how their worship of the "Unknown God" was actually the God who we know to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The descent into hell

Descent into Hell (the Resurrection)

Both the Apostles' and the Athansaian Creed state that following His death, Jesus descended into the place of the dead, Hades. The Orthodox services at Pascha (Easter) strongly stress the way in which "trampling down death by death" Christ bestowed life on those in the tombs, and the ikon shows some of the most important of those in the tombs - including Adam and Eve - being freed from death. This indicates that the whole of humanity - those who lived before Christ as well as those who lived after Him - are the beneficiaries of his life, death and resurrection.

The risen Messiah meets Thomas

St Thomas

St Thomas, or Didymus, is recorded as doubting sceptically the Resurrection.  Jesus appeared to the Apostles and invited Thomas to touch the wounds to provide evidence enough for Thomas to believe. Thomas is reported to have been so convinced, that in AD 52 he travelled as far as Kerala in India to bring news of the Messiah to the Jewish community there who were part of the Diaspora.  By all accounts he was a charismatic figure and throughout that part of the world grew communities which followed Christianity.  He is believed to have died AD 72 on 21st December.

The ascension

The Ascension

Christian Theology asserts that forty days after the resurrection Christ ascended into Heaven. It is central to Christian belief and is included in all the Creeds. Forty days echo the forty days in the wilderness. It must be remembered however, that in Jewish literature the term forty days is often used to denote 'a long period of time' and not necessarily intended to depict an exactperiod of chronology. Whilst tradition asserts that Jesus ascended into heaven after forty days, the period of time between his resurrection and ascension doesn’t mean that it was forty days not a day less nor a day more. Modern emphasis on journalistic accuracy was, at the time the gospels were written, not the case.

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