The Significance of Lazarus Saturday to Lent

Lazarus Saturday commemorates Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead to foreshadow His resurrection the following week.

Before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He performed a great miracle the day before. Lazarus Saturday truly holds a special place in the liturgical calendar. Together with Palm Sunday, these two days form a short and joyous prelude to the days of grief. Besides the events of this day, let’s also learn about who Lazarus was. How does his resurrection apply to our faith and spiritual journey?

What is Lazarus Saturday?

Lazarus Saturday is the Saturday before Holy Week. It is the day Jesus performs a miracle where He raised Lazarus from the dead after having already been lain in the grave for four days. Orthodox churches observe a significant feast of the year for the wondrous miracle Jesus performed on this day. It’s also the last day of Lent and the forty days of fasting and repentance, so it is celebrated with great joy and reverence.

Who is Lazarus?

Lazarus of Bethany or Eleazar in Hebrew means “God has helped”. Lazarus was the brother of Martha and Mary and lived in Bethany just two miles southeast of Jerusalem. Jesus had previously met with the three siblings and had enjoyed their hospitality (Luke 10:38-42). However, Lazarus isn’t directly mentioned in Luke 10:38-42, and only appears until John 11.

What Happened on Lazarus Saturday?

Jumping forward to John 11:1-3, the two sisters sent word to Jesus, “the one you love is sick”. Judging from this phrase alone, Jesus considered Lazarus as a very dear friend. But despite the implied closeness, Jesus says, “illness does not lead to death but rather, it is for God’s glory” and waits for two more days before going to Bethany. 

When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days. Martha met Jesus when she learned that He was in Bethany and told Him that Lazarus wouldn’t have died if He had been there. But then Jesus answered that Lazarus would rise again and asked Martha if she believed that all who lives and believes in Him would never die; Martha answered that she does. (John 11:21-27)

After Martha sent Mary to meet Jesus, when Jesus saw Mary and the Jews that had gathered with her weeping, Jesus was moved and troubled and asked to be taken to the Lazarus’ tomb. At the grave, Jesus wept for Lazarus. Jesus then asked for the stone to be moved, said a prayer to his Father, and commanded Lazarus to come out of his tomb. (John 11:38-44)

Why is it Essential to Celebrate Lazarus Saturday?

Lazarus Saturday is a day of joy and triumph between the repentance of the Great Fast and the mourning of Holy Pascha Week. Also, it says in the Gospel of John that the resurrection of Lazarus was the last miracle Jesus performed before His resurrection. 

It is essential to celebrate Lazarus Saturday because it reminds us of our lack of faith during trouble and sorrow. Yes, we are all sinners, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t deserve God’s forgiveness and revival. Like how Martha didn’t entertain the idea of Jesus raising her brother from the tomb, we have also forgotten the numerous times God has forgiven us of our sins and shortcomings. 

When is Lazarus Saturday?

Lazarus Saturday refers to the moveable feast before Palm Sunday in Eastern Christianity. It celebrates the raising of Lazarus from death and Jesus’ last miracle before His resurrection. For 2022, Lazarus Saturday is on April 9, twenty days from now.

Customs and Traditions Observed During Lazarus Saturday

Religious observance

Eastern Christians still observe Lazarus Saturday up to this day. Orthodox churches hold services to retell the story of Lazarus coming back to life at Jesus’ command. Some refer to this miracle as the “first Easter” as it precedes Jesus’ resurrection the week after.

What color does the priest wear for Lazarus Saturday?

The priest wears green colored vestments on Lazarus Saturday. Gold is allowed only if green vestments aren’t available.

Greek Folk Customs

In Greece, children celebrate by singing folk songs called Lazarakia. These folk songs describe the miracle of Lazarus’ rising from the dead. Children even bring props such as pictures, dolls, and rods covered with flowers, ribbons, and cloth to represent Lazarus. 

Eastern European and Middle Eastern Customs

In the past, little girls in Bulgaria would wear bridal finery and go door to door to sing songs about Lazarus. In return, their neighbors give them small coins or eggs. The following day, on Palm Sunday, the little girls would continue to sing from door to door of songs that wished health, good fortune, and romance. Another old Bulgarian custom involves little girls and boys reenacting the Bible story. Then the neighbors would give the children coins and cookies after their presentation.

Similar customs prevailed in the former Yugoslavia and Romania. While in Syria, local school teachers in Christian communities led bands of students through the neighborhood while they chanted the story of Lazarus. 

How is Lazarus Saturday Celebrated Around the World

Armenia

In Armenia, Holy Week doesn’t begin on Palm Sunday but Lazarus Saturday. Though Lazarus is a saint in the Armenian church, Lazarus Saturday is not a fasting day or a saints’ day. Lazarus’ story and the lessons from his resurrection are shared during this day. The celebration of Lazarus Saturday or Holy Saturday reminds Christ’s coming resurrection. It is also a reminder for those who have “fallen asleep” in Christ to come alive and live in His ways.

Greece

Lazarus Saturday is one of the most significant feast days in the Orthodox church. It celebrates the final great miracle Jesus performed before His resurrection. Centuries of tradition and customs have associated this day with feasts among the people of Greece. One common tradition is the baking of Lazarakia. Lazarakia is a spiced bread and is Lenten, meaning it has no dairy or eggs in the recipe. It is used to remember the miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.

Cyprus

In Cyprus, children would dress in yellow flowers, and they would lie down on the ground while the other children sing carols about Lazarus. When the children shouted “Lazarus, come forth”, those on the floor got up as if they had risen from dead.

Bulgaria

St. Lazarus Day has an important place in Bulgarian folklore beliefs. It’s the day before Palm Sunday and marks the week before Easter. A sumptuous feast is commemorated on Lazarus Saturday, and instead of palm, willow twig branches are blessed and distributed. 

Serbia

In Serbia, small bells are even tied to the willow twig branches. Lazarus Saturday also commemorated St. Lazarus the Bulgarian, a devout follower of Christ and died a martyr’s death in 1802.

Scriptures and Hymns of Lazarus Saturday Service

Scriptures

Lazarus Saturday services would read Hebrews 12:28-13:8 and John 11:1-45 during the Divine Liturgy. 

Hebrews 12:28

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful and worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” 

Hebrews 13:1-8

“Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have because God has said,

“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

Hymns

Hymns would also be sung during the services, which include the following:

Apolytikion: First Tone

By raising Lazarus from the dead before Your Passion, You confirmed the universal resurrection, O Christ God! Like the children with palms of victory, We cry out to You, O Vanquisher of Death; Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!

Kontakion: Second Tone

Christ – the Joy, the Truth, and the Light of All, the Life of the World and the Resurrection – has appeared in His goodness to those on earth. He has become the Image of our resurrection, granting divine forgiveness to all.

Troparion of Saturday of St. Lazarus, Orthros. Tone 1

O Christ God, when Thou didst raise Lazarus from the dead, before Thy Passion, Thou didst confirm the universal resurrection. Wherefore, we, like babes, carry the symbol of triumph and victory and cry to Thee, O vanquisher of death, Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord.

Exaposteilaria, Saturday of St. Lazarus. Tone 3

By Your Word, O Word of God, Lazarus now leaps out of death, having returned to this life. Therefore the peoples honor You with their branches, O Mighty One; for You shall destroy Hades utterly by Your death.

By means of Lazarus, has Christ already plundered you, O death. Where is your victory, O Hades? For the lament of Bethany is handed over now to you. Let us all wave against it our branches of success.

In Conclusion

Lazarus is a fitting name for the man Jesus commanded to come out of his tomb. Hopefully, God has also helped us realize a couple of things about our faith with Lazarus’ story. Though our confidence in God may sometimes falter, let us never forget who and what our God is capable of. And although Jesus is the Messiah, it doesn’t mean that He isn’t empathetic. Though He is God, He feels our joy and suffering; He isn’t as unreachable as we think.

So in preparation for Holy Week, let’s meditate on the lesson and reminder that comes with Lazarus’ story. Let’s celebrate the wondrous miracle that Jesus performed on this day and His triumph over sin and death the week after.

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Alex Shute
EDITOR
Alex Shute, MBA
Alex is a family man and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. His passion is to serve the global Church and bring people of diverse backgrounds together to learn & grow.