Gospel lockdowns


From Bethany to Jerusalem – from lockdown to freedom

As I write, I enter into the ‘lockdown’ that our health authorities have wisely demanded of us for our own good.

Believe it or not, lockdowns are not alien to the Gospels either! Various people were either obliged to submit to lockdowns or imposed them on themselves. Just think of the one that the disciples forced themselves into: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews … And after eight days His disciples were again inside” (John 20:19.26).

Paul Sciberras_1
Fr Paul Sciberras

John 11:1-45 reveals this in a surprising way. His account of the raising of Lazarus of  says a great deal about interior lockdown and its opposite, true freedom in resurrection! Half way through his account John inserts what seems to be a superficial and superfluous detail. He mentions that, “Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away [some 3.2 km]” (John 11:18)

Our curiosity is immediately piqued by this insertion into a Gospel account that has at its core life after death, resurrection. Why did John the Evangelist feel the need to specify the distance between Bethany and Jerusalem eighteen verses into the miracle account, when he had already mentioned Bethany in verse 1? Because, with the second mentioning, the dialogue between Jesus, Martha and Mary and the Jews has begun began edging towards the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection itself. “Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died… Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise.’

marthaMartha said to him, ‘I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus told her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die’” (vv.21-26). And we know that Jesus’ death took place just outside Jerusalem, and his resurrection too. So Bethany lay within the range of contagion of Jerusalem, and within the range of the warmth of love and fire of Jesus’ resurrection. Even Martha understood this proximity: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v.21). If you had been as Jerusalem is to Bethany, my brother would have enjoyed your lordship over his sickness and death, your being the resurrection and the life (see v.25). And the death that took over in Bethany found an antidote in the resurrection power that took place in the vicinity of Jerusalem!

In Hebrew, Bethany is Bêt-ʽanyāh, House of the answer or House of affliction. The best Hebrew lexicons and dictionaries give us several meanings and derivations for ʽanyāh in Bethany.

To start with the first, of the several distinct usages of the verb form ʽānāh, the main two are: ‘to answer, respond or correspond’. Bethany would mean ‘House of the answer’.

Jerusalem and what took place there concerning death and resurrection to new life would suit to a tee in its appropriateness of the vicinity of Bethany to Jerusalem. To the mystery of death, pain, loss and the myriad of questions they raise in human hearts, Jerusalem and the resurrection that took place there, would provide the answer. To the questions: “How is it that even your friends fall ill? (see v.3); why did you tarry for two more days when we had informed you that your friend Lazarus was ill? (see v.6); “could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (v.37), Jesus provided the answer: “I am the resurrection and the life ” (v.25). Bethany could enjoy the new life Jesus proffered to Lazarus (and to all his acquaintances) because of Jerusalem’s contagious resurrection power in Jesus’ rising from the dead.

What about the other meaning? The verb ʽānāh can also mean ‘to afflict, to oppress or to humble’. The noun ʽonì’ means ‘affliction or poverty’. Affliction is precisely affliction, emphatic ad- > af- and flict* from Latin affligere ‘to dash down, overthrow’. Lazarus’ death brought affliction, throttling pain, distress to many … including Jesus himself, who wept at his friend’s death (see John 11:35). Our Maltese language gives us the noun ‘djieqa’ from the verb ‘huwa dejjaq’, which denotes not only (physical) ‘narrowness’ but also interior or even psychological anguish. It seems that at the core of this word lies some kind of restriction, narrowness, constraint, tightness, constriction, oppression, anguish!

Lazarus was in this situation and condition because of his funerary shroud and because of his entombment but also because everyone and everything around him were in ‘anguish’. “He who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth,” so much so that Jesus had to order the bystanders to: “Loose him, and let him go” (John 11:44); “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (v.33); “Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it” (v.38). Jesus “cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ (v.43)

Bêt-ʽanyāh is thus diametrically opposed to salvation (yeshuʽāh), which is ‘a leading out into spaciousness’. Psalm 66:11-12 expresses the idea very clearly: “You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads… yet you have brought us out to a spacious place”. Bêt-ʽanyāh’s anguish and affliction at Lazarus’ death confronts Jerusalem’s salvation in Jesus Christ, and has to bow down its head in total defeat!

Bêt-ʽanyāh’s anguish and affliction (Bethany’s lockdown etymological attitude) could enjoy Jerusalem’s contagion of ‘coming out’, ‘loosing’, of liberation and freedom. Jesus’ resurrection power could seep into, contaminate and consequently purge Lazarus’ ‘anguish’, and even death.

If Bêt-ʽanyāh is the House of affliction and anguish, what about Jerusalem, in whose vicinity it stood? Ierûshālayîm (Hebrew), Hierosόyma (Greek) is variously etymologized to mean ‘foundation (Sumerian yeru, ‘settlement’/Semitic yry’ ‘to found, to lay a cornerstone’) of Shalim or Shalem,’ the god of dusk in the Canaanite religion. The name Shalim/Shalem is based on the same root s-l-m from which the Hebrew word for ‘peace’ is derived (shālôm). The concept-word shālôm is derived from a root denoting completeness, soundness, wholeness, welfare, and thus peace, and its frame of reference throughout Jewish literature is bound up with the notion of shelemût, perfection. The name Ierûshālayîm thus offered itself to etymologizations such as “The City of Peace”, “Abode of Peace”, “Dwelling of peace”.

That “Bethany was near Jerusalem” is not just a trivial geographical flourish, that John could have done without in an account of the mortal duel between death and resurrection. That “Bethany was near Jerusalem” is meant to convey the hope that comes from Jesus when we are faced with corporal, spiritual and psychological lockdowns!

“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).

By Fr Paul Sciberras

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