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Life After the Great Sleep : LAZARUS by Alain Absire, translated by Barbara Bray (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $22.95; 211 pp.)

February 21, 1988|Malcolm Boyd | Boyd is writer-priest-in-residence at St. Augustine by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, Santa Monica, and author of "Half Laughing/Half Crying" and "Gay Priest." and

Jesus' most celebrated and scandalous miracle concerns Lazarus: He raised him from the dead. Lazarus thereupon vanishes from Scripture. A mysteriously truncated figure in the Gospels, he lingers in the world's imagination as a man slowly being unwrapped from a shroud. What happened to him?

"He never stopped working except to honor the Sabbath," Alain Absire writes, introducing us to his fictional Lazarus. "He lived with his two sisters, Martha and Mary, and with Susannah, his young wife, barely 15, whom he loved dearly. By turns woodcutter, joiner, wheelwright, builder, and maker of yokes and plows, he was one of the richest men in Bethany."

But Lazarus fell ill and died. Then Jesus came to his tomb and cried in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth!" "Suddenly a shadow moved in the low passage leading to the tomb. A swatched form, bent, appeared at the foot of the steps."

Although restored to life, Lazarus was maimed in body and spirit, a man half-dead. He could not work, make love to his wife, or see the vitality and color of life. When an assassin was sent from a Sanhedrin leader to kill him (in order to remove evidence of Jesus' miracle), Lazarus was mortally stabbed--but did not bleed. "He no longer had any life to lose. He had emerged from the Great Sleep and would never be able to return to it." Lazarus' skin was gray and cracked; he smelled of rotting earth, and became an abomination in people's eyes.

Lazarus desperately sought Jesus, hoping to be restored to his former life's condition. But he came upon Jesus being crucified. "I believe in you! You are the Messiah! Escape, and give me back my strength, my life!" he shouted at the dying figure on the cross.

Soon, hearing that Jesus had come back to life, Lazarus set out for Emmaus. From there he walked to Galilee. He moved on to Nazareth where he visited Jesus' mother, who admonished him: "If he brought you back to life, he had good reasons for it. You simply cannot understand the meaning of what he did for you. Do you think even I, his mother, always understood what he did? . . . It is a wonderful thing that has happened to you. I only hope you realize it one day."

Returning to Jerusalem, Lazarus made friends with a young man, Jair, who helped him find John, the disciple, busy at work writing his gospel. "I'll soon reach your part of the story," John told him. "Your resurrection is the most wonderful of all the miracles." Lazarus pushed John to explain why Jesus left him in such poor condition. "Anyone who sees you as you are now is bound to believe in him," John replied. "They can see the unmistakable marks of death on your face and body, can smell the odor of death on you, and must believe, because what they see is beyond question. . . . He must have judged that an indisputable sign, different from all his other miracles, was necessary."

I'll not reveal the denouement of Lazarus' story. Suffice it to say, he learns to lose fear and mercifully finds peace amid apocalyptic violence. Absire opens our eyes to a Jerusalem, a Bethany, an Emmaus and Nazareth we've not known before. He re-creates the physical and psychological world of Jesus and Lazarus in a deceptively simple fashion. His characters are shrewdly focused, not larger-than-life.

It is shocking to be reminded how youthful everybody in the story really was, this in contrast with an aging Establishment faith. Absire connects the reader to the scandal of Jesus' life and actions in the context of His time, and the essential revolutionary energy of such overpowering, committed spiritual force.

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