The raising of Lazarus, the sixth of seven signs in the Gospel of St. John, is told “so that you may believe.” The raising of Pornchai Moontri is that story retold.
Some very important things occurred on the day before I sat down to type this post. The day began for me at about 5:00 AM. I was alone in the dark, walking in silent solitude through the dew laden grass of the New Hampshire State Prison Ballfield. There was not another soul in sight. The day’s first light was but a hint of gray barely visible above the walls and razor wire. A few birds were stirring with the dawn’s early light, their song one of hope and serenity. I could smell the grass and the early morning air. All was beautiful. Succumbing to the hypnotic scene, I lay down in the beckoning grass and fell into a deep sleep.
And then I suddenly awoke from that dream to the harsh reality that ushers in my real day. The soft grass instantly transformed into cold concrete, the melody of songbirds into the snores of grown men, the smell of grass and the morning air into the stale and crowded confinement of what sometimes feels like a tomb.
I longed to drift back into my dream, but it was a luxury I could not afford that day. So I rolled over to the edge of my bunk, reached down to the floor, and plugged in a pot of water for coffee. Then I lay in the dark and placed before the Lord the important things of the day that lay before us.
A few minutes later, Pornchai-Max Moontri jumped down from his upper bunk and silently poured hot water into two cups of instant coffee. The other six denizens of our cell still slept as we prepared for a momentous day in prison. At 6:00 AM, Pornchai walked from our cell to a small bank of three telephones to place a long awaited call. For the first time since he was taken from his home and country at age 11 – 32 years ago – Pornchai placed a call to someone in Thailand. And it was not just ANY someone.
It was 6:00 PM in Thailand, and his first call to his homeland was to Yela Smit, a founding member of “Divine Mercy Thailand,” a group that reached across the world to embrace Pornchai with something he had once given up all hope for a life beyond this long sleep of death in prison. This moment had its origin in one of the most compelling accounts of faith written at These Stone Walls, “Knock and the Door Will Open: Divine Mercy in Bangkok, Thailand.” Just how miraculous is that gift might be clearer below, but first, the story of Lazarus.
“I HAVE COME TO BELIEVE!”
Pornchai himself seemed to provide a prelude to the story of Lazarus. At Mass on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, he stood at the lectern to proclaim the Second Reading from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians. I found it difficult to distinguish the words from the life’s reality of the man proclaiming them:
“You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness, rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret, but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore, it says ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’” (Ephesians 5:8-14)
It amazes me how much those very words proclaimed by Pornchai-Max at Mass on the Fourth Sunday of Lent are both a summation of his life and a prelude to the raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-45. Pay special attention to this Gospel passage for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Before we tell more, it needs a little background.
It was Winter in Jerusalem, and the Feast of the Dedication, the event known to us as Hanukkah. We began Lent at These Stone Walls this year with the background story of this Feast in “Semper Fi! Forty Days of Lent Giving Up Giving Up.” When Jesus went to the Temple at the time of this Feast (described in John 10:22-42), He was walking in the Portico of Solomon on the eastern side of the Temple mentioned in Acts of the Apostles 3:11.
Some of the Jews surrounded him, and challenged him about a circulating rumor that he is the Christ. They wanted him to claim it plainly, and they had taken up stones to execute him for blasphemy if he did. Storm clouds were gathering, and rumbling calls for his death were growing in Jerusalem.
Some Pharisees had been investigating his healing of a blind man on the Sabbath. They first thought the man had been faking his blindness, but witnesses attested that he had been blind from birth. They questioned the formerly blind man about the “sinner” who had healed him, but the man shot back, “Would God listen to a sinner?”
Now, at the Portico of Solomon in the Temple, Jesus spoke of his sheep hearing his voice. He challenged the Pharisees’ spiritual blindness, “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me.” They took up stones and tried to arrest him, “but he escaped from their hands” (John 10:39). “The Hour of the Son of God” (the Seventh sign) had not yet come.
But then Jesus received word that Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary of Bethany, was ill. When Jesus heard this, he said, “This illness is not unto death; it is for the greater glory of God, so that the Son of Man may be glorified because of it.” Then he simply took his time, inexplicably letting two more days pass before departing to complete this sixth of seven signs in the Fourth Gospel’s “Book of Signs,” the raising of Lazarus from his tomb, the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent.
But first, what does the Fourth Gospel mean by its “Book of Signs?” Written in Greek, Saint John’s Gospel uses an interchangeable term – Sêmeion – for both “signs” and “miracles.” The Greek word is used sixty times through the New Testament, seventeen of them in the Fourth Gospel. Since the first six of the Gospel’s seven signs are found in Chapters one through twelve, this part of the Gospel is called “The Book of Signs.”
For this Evangelist, the signs of Jesus are mighty works, but they are also miracles told for a specific purpose. They are “signs” that lift a corner of the veil to point the readers’ gaze to the glory of God working through Christ. The signs of Jesus echo the signs of Moses during the Exodus from Egypt:
“And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and wonders… and for all the mighty wonder and all the great and terrible deeds which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel.” (Deuteronomy 34:10-12).
The Sixth Sign, the raising of Lazarus, concludes the Book of Signs, and makes way for the rest of the Gospel and the Seventh Sign, the final and climactic sign – the Resurrection of Jesus – which Jesus elsewhere calls “The Sign of Jonah” (Matthew 12:39).
It is for this reason that the Church permanently chooses the Passion account from the Gospel According to Saint John for the proclamation of the Gospel on Good Friday. It is very different from the other three Gospel accounts. Here, the death of Christ is not just sacrifice and the path to redemption. It is also the moment of the enthronement of Christ the King upon the Cross. As the Seventh Sign, it is the fulfillment of the purpose of all the signs, in just the way that the Evangelist has Jesus presenting the illness of Lazarus: “To bring glory to God.” Martha, the sister of Lazarus, bridges the Sixth and Seventh signs in a dialogue with Jesus about the death of her brother:
“‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whoever believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.’” (John 11:25-27)
THE RAISING OF LAZARUS
Almost inexplicably in this Gospel account, once Jesus learns of the illness of Lazarus, he “stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (11:7). The account takes great pains to present that by the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus is not asleep or in a coma, but is dead, wrapped and bound in a burial shroud, and sealed in a tomb for four days. There can be no doubt.
The disciples are incredulous that Jesus would even think of going to Bethany in Judea where many of the Jews who had been in Jerusalem have now also gone. “Rabbi, the Jews were but now seeking to stone you, and you are going there again?” (John 11:8) The disciples totally misunderstand his reply – “If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble.” Throughout the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is aware that until his “hour” comes, he can walk through all of Judea in safety. (We mined the depths of this “hour” in the Fourth Gospel in a Holy Week post, “Now Comes the Hour of the Son of God.”)
I found the response of Martha (above) to be perplexing at first: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” What could Martha mean by “coming into the world?” Jesus is already in the world. It’s a sort of presage of the events to come. Upon the cross, in sight of His mother and the Beloved Disciple, Jesus Himself becomes the Gate of Heaven. The raising of Lazarus is a preface to that event, and with the entire scene set, it is told in the simplest terms:
“‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (John 11:43-44).
With those few words, the Fourth Gospel ends the Sixth Sign by ascribing to Jesus what was once for Israel the sole purview of Yahweh: the power over death, and life. From this point on in the Gospel of John, the Seventh Sign commences as the plot to put Jesus to death gets underway.
ANOTHER CHAPTER IN PORNCHAI’S STORY
There were chapters after this one awaiting in the future of Lazarus, but we will never know what they are. But this account echoes across the centuries, and still reverberates in countless lives of those called from death to life. Though Lazarus was physically dead, there is a parallel for those summoned forth from the tombs of spiritual death. One of them is our friend, Pornchai Maximilian Moontri, and his story is also told to unveil the glory of God.
I cannot tell all of it yet for some important chapters are still being written. But I can tell you this: the full account, when told, will be one of the most important Divine Mercy stories of our time. In the coming months, we hope to tell more of it, for the odds against any of it unfolding as they did are astronomical.
Pornchai’s recent telephone call to Thailand was but the latest step out of darkness into the light, and like Lazarus it leads only to his unbinding and new life. Seven years ago when These Stone Walls began, we did not see this as even possible. Somehow, while buried in a prison cell in Concord, New Hampshire, we managed to tell a tale that circled the world, and when it came back around to us, it carried with it a multitude of good will and bonds of connection. For Pornchai, this tapestry of grace is still being woven, replacing the threads of only vague dreams and little hope with the powerful weaving of Divine Mercy. All has changed.
Among the instruments of that change is Viktor Weyand who is pictured in the photograph below with Pornchai Moontri. Viktor, an Austrian living in the United States, is a member of Divine Mercy Thailand and a founder of Divine Mercy School in Bangkok. During one of his many visits to Bangkok three years ago, he was asked to investigate the story of a young Thai man in an American prison in New Hampshire. That story drifted around the world from These Stone Walls. As happens among the hidden threads behind every tapestry of grace, Divine Mercy created bonds of connection that gathered strength and then rolled back the stone of Pornchai’s spiritual tomb. And as he put it, “I woke up one day with a future when up to then all I ever had was a past.”
The story of this other Lazarus is coming, and like the first, it will knock your socks off! For, now I can only give you once again the very words from Saint Paul that Pornchai read at Mass on the Fourth Sunday of Lent to open our hearts to the story of Lazarus:
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead. Christ will be your light.”
Editor’s Note: You might like these other journeys into the deeper threads of the Tapestry of God in Sacred Scripture from These Stone Walls:
- Joseph’s Dream and the Birth of the Messiah
- A Transfiguration Before Our Very Eyes
- Casting the First Stone: What Jesus Wrote in the Sand
- On the Road to Jericho: A Parable for the Year of Mercy
- Upon the Dung Heap of Job: God’s Answer to Suffering
- St Gabriel the Archangel: When the Dawn from On High Broke Upon Us
- Angelic Justice: St Michael the Archangel and the Scales of Hesed