Epstein’s Lazarus

I wrote this reflection last year for the University Church’s Passion and Compassion project, a trail of stations of the cross using art objects around Oxford.

The reflection seems especially pertinent now, as we are living in a time poised between death and life, longing for the promise of rebirth.

For the full set of stations see https://www.universitychurch.ox.ac.uk/content/passion-and-compassion.

14th Station: Jesus is laid in the tomb. Object: Jacob Epstein, Lazarus, New College chapel

We have reached the fourteenth and final station. Jesus’s body is laid in the tomb. At the millennium Pope John Paul II added a fifteenth station: Jesus rises from the dead, as a reminder that the tomb is a beginning, as well as an end. This statue by the British sculptor Jacob Epstein poises us in between those moments, in the heartbeat between death and new life, between burial and rebirth. Epstein depicts Jesus’s dear friend Lazarus in the moment that Jesus calls him out of the grave. It is an electrifying miracle, the crux around which the whole of John’s gospel turns, the event that leads the religious leaders to conclude that Jesus must die, that begins the way to the cross. In the story, Jesus hears of his friend’s illness and predicts his death, but dawdles on the way, so that Lazarus will be good and dead by the time Jesus gets there. When Jesus finally arrives and orders that the stone be taken away from the tomb, Lazarus’s sister Martha is horrified. ‘Lord, by this time he stinketh, for he hath been dead four days.’ And yet Jesus persists, calling his dead and decaying friend by name. ‘Lazarus, come out!’ And out Lazarus comes, still wound in his grave clothes, a shroud covering his face. ‘Unbind him,’ Jesus says. ‘And let him go.’

If you walk around to the far side of the statue, facing the door, you can see the stark reality of this moment, a body swaddled in grave clothes, all humanity disguised.

But if you come around to the front again, you see the head turned at a sharp, unnatural angle, as if Lazarus has cocked an ear to the sound of his name, although he hasn’t yet opened his eyes. From some perspectives he looks as if he is sleeping, his head cradled in his shoulder. From other perspectives he looks as if he is straining, trying, painfully, to turn from death to life. I have often walked around the statue and asked myself which way he is turning: towards the chapel, towards the east and the rising sun, and away from his bindings, or towards the door and out into the world, whatever it might bring? Where, in his world, is Jesus, and which way is he being called? Epstein originally carved the statue for an outdoor sculpture exhibition at Battersea Park. It was not designed for this space, and its position here, on a threshold, is a coincidence. But it nevertheless provokes the question of which way we are called in resurrection, as in life. Is the pull greater towards the rest of the grave, the sleep of eternal life, or towards renewed engagement with the world? For each of us that pull will ebb and flow with the tide of life, and it is important that we are reminded of it anew each Easter, that balance between ‘Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, he is risen’; and the promise of ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’ Where, today, is Jesus calling you now?

Lord, I have been dead, and long for life, now, and evermore. In your death may I hear you call my name, unbind me, and let me go.

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