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Memories Of Bethany by John Ross Macduff

I. OPENING THOUGHTS.

Places associated with great minds are always interesting. What a halo of moral grandeur must ever be thrown around that spot which was hallowed above all others by the Lord of glory as the scene of His most cherished earthly friendship! However holy be the memories which encircle other localities trodden by Him in the days of His flesh, -- Bethlehem, with its manger cradle, its mystic star, and adoring cherubim -- Nazareth, the nurturing home of His youthful affections -- Tiberias, whose shores so often echoed to His footfall, or whose waters in stillness or in storm bore Him on their bosom -- the crested heights where He uttered His beatitudes -- the midnight mountains where He prayed -- the garden where He suffered -- the hill where He died, -- there is no one single resort in His divine pilgrimage on which sanctified thought loves so fondly to dwell as on the home and village of BETHANY.

Its hours of sacred converse have long ago fled. Its honoured family have slumbered for ages in their tomb. Bethany's Lord has been for centuries enthroned amid the glories of a brighter home. But though its Memories are all that remain, the place is still fragrant with His presence. The echoes of His voice -- words of unearthly sweetness -- still linger around it; and have for eighteen hundred years served to cheer and encourage many a fainting pilgrim in his upward ascent to the true Bethany above!

There, the Redeemer of the world proclaimed a brief but impressive Gospel. Heaven and earth seemed then to touch one another. We have the tender tones of a Man blended with the ineffable majesty of God. Hopes |full of immortality| shine with their celestial rainbow-hues amid a shower of holy tears. The cancelling from our Bibles of the 11th chapter of St John would be like the blotting out of the brightest planet from the spiritual firmament. Each of its magnificent utterances has proved like a ministering-angel -- a seraph-messenger bearing its live-coal of comfort to the broken, bleeding heart from the holiest altar which SYMPATHY (divine and human) ever upreared in a trial-world! Many has been the weary footstep and tearful eye that has hastened in thought to BETHANY -- |gone to the grave of Lazarus, to weep there.|

|The town of Mary and her sister Martha,| then, furnishes us alike with a garnered treasury of Christian solaces, and one of the very loveliest of the Bible's domestic portraitures. If the story of Joseph and his brethren is in the Old Testament invested with surpassing interest, here is a Gospel home-scene in the New, of still deeper and tenderer pathos -- a picture in which the true Joseph appears as the central figure, without any estrangements to mar its beauty. Often at other times a drapery of woe hangs over the pathway of the Man of Sorrows. But Bethany is bathed in sunshine; -- a sweet oasis in his toil-worn pilgrimage. At this quiet abode of congenial spirits he seems to have had his main |sips at the fountain of human joy,| and to have obtained a temporary respite from unwearied labour and unmerited enmity. The |Lily among thorns| raised His drooping head in this Eden home! Thither we can follow Him from the courts of the Temple -- the busy crowd -- the lengthened journey -- the miracles of mercy -- the hours of vain and ineffectual pleading with obdurate hearts. We can picture Him as the inmate of a peaceful family, spirit blending with spirit in sanctified communion. We can mark the tenderness of His holy humanity. We can see how He loved, and sympathised, and wept, and rejoiced!

As the tremendous events which signalised the close of His pilgrimage drew on, still it is Bethany with which they are mainly associated. It was at Bethany the fearful visions of His cross and passion cast their shadow on his path! From its quiet palm-trees He issued forth on His last day's journey across Mount Olivet. It was with Bethany in view He ascended to heaven. Its soil was the last He trod -- its homes were the last on which his eye rested when the cloud received Him up into glory. The beams of the Sun of Righteousness seemed as if they loved to linger on this consecrated height.

We cannot doubt that many incidents regarding His oft sojournings there are left unrecorded. We have more than once, indeed, merely the simple announcement in the inspired narrative that He retired from Jerusalem all night to the village where His friend Lazarus resided. We dare not withdraw more of the veil than the Word of God permits. Let us be grateful for what we have of the gracious unfoldings here vouchsafed of His inner life -- the comprehensive intermingling of doctrine, consolation, comfort, and instruction in righteousness. His Bethany sayings are for all time -- they have |gone through all the earth| -- His Bethany words |to the end of the world!| Like its own alabaster box of precious ointment, |wheresoever the Gospel is preached,| there will these be held in grateful memorial.

The traveller in Palestine is to this day shewn, in a sort of secluded ravine on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives (about fifteen furlongs or two miles from Jerusalem), a cluster of poor cottages, numbering little more than twenty families, with groups of palm-trees surrounding them, interspersed here and there with the olive, the almond, the pomegranate, and the fig.

This ruined village bears the Arab name of El-Azirezeh -- the Arabic form of the name Lazarus -- and at once identifies it with a spot so sacred and interesting in Gospel story. It is described by the most recent and discerning of Eastern writers as |a wild mountain hamlet, screened by an intervening ridge from the view of the top of Olivet -- perched on its open plateau of rock -- the last collection of human habitations before the desert hills that reach to Jericho. ... High in the distance are the Peraean mountains; the foreground is the deep descent of the mountain valley.|

|The fields around,| says another traveller, |lie uncultivated, and covered with rank grass and wild flowers; but it is easy to imagine the deep and still beauty of this spot when it was the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary. Defended on the north and west by the Mount of Olives, it enjoys a delightful exposure to the southern sun. The grounds around are obviously of great fertility, though quite neglected; and the prospect to the south-east commands a magnificent view of the Dead Sea and the plains of Jordan.|

|On the horizon's verge,
The last faint tracing on the blue expanse,
Rise Moab's summits; and above the rest
One pinnacle, where, placed by Hand Divine,
Israel's great leader stood, allow'd to view,
And but to view, that long-expected land
He may not now enjoy. Below, dim gleams
The sea, untenanted by ought that lives,
And Jordan's waters thread the plain unseen.

* * * * *

Here, hid among her trees, a village clings --
Roof above roof uprising. White the walls,
And whiter still by contrast; and those roofs,
Broad sunny platforms, strew'd with ripening grain. Some wandering olive or unsocial fig
Amid the broken rooks which bound the path
Snatches scant nurture from the creviced stone.|

Before closing these prefatory remarks, the question cannot fail to have occurred to the most unobservant reader, why the history of the Family of Bethany and the Resurrection of Lazarus, in themselves so replete with interest and instruction -- the latter, moreover, forming, as it did, so notable a crisis in the Saviour's life -- should have been recorded only by the Evangelist John. Strange that the other inspired penmen should have left altogether unchronicled this touching episode in sacred writ. One or other of two reasons -- or both combined -- we may accept as the most satisfactory explanation regarding what, after all, must remain a difficulty. John alone of the Gospel writers narrates the transactions which took place in Judea in connexion with the Saviour's public ministry, -- the others restricted themselves mainly to the incidents and events of His Galilean life and journeys; at all events, till they come to the closing scene of all. There is another reason equally probable: -- A wise Christian prudence, and delicate consideration for the feelings of the living, may have prevented the other Evangelists giving publicity to facts connected with their Lord's greatest miracle; a premature disclosure of which might have exposed Lazarus and his sisters to the violence of the unscrupulous persecutors of the day. They would, moreover, (as human feelings are the same in every age,) naturally shrink from violating the peculiar sacredness of domestic grief by publishing circumstantially its details while the mourners and the mourned still lingered at their Bethany home. Well did they know that that Holy Spirit at whose dictation they wrote, would not suffer |the Church of the future| to be deprived of so precious a record of divine love and power. Hence the sacred task of being the Biographer of Lazarus was consigned to their aged survivor.

When the Apostle of Patmos wrote his Gospel, as is supposed in distant Ephesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were, in all likelihood, reposing in their graves. Happily so, too, for ere this the Roman armies were encamped almost within sight of their old dwelling, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem undergoing their unparalleled sufferings.

Add to this, John, of all the Evangelists, was best qualified to do justice to this matchless picture. Baptized himself with the spirit of love, his inspired pencil could best portray the lights and shadows in this lovely and loving household. Pre-eminently like his Lord, he could best delineate the scene of all others where the tenderness of that tender Saviour shone most conspicuous. He was the disciple who had leant on His bosom -- who had been admitted by Him to nearest and most confiding fellowship. He would have the Church, to the latest period of time, to enjoy the same. He interrupts, therefore, the course of his narrative that he may lift the veil which enshrouds the private life of Jesus, and exhibit Him in all ages in the endearing attitude and relation of a Human Friend. Immanuel is transfigured on this Mount of Love before His suffering and glory! The Bethany scene, with its tints of soft and mellowed sunlight, forms a pleasing background to the sadder and more awful events which crowd the Gospel's closing chapters.

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