By Archimandrite Lazarus Georgiou,
Superior-Priest of the Church of St. Lazarus in Larnaka, Cyprus
Bethany is a Jewish word which means "the home of the Phoenicians". It has remained known in history as the homeland of Lazarus the friend of Christ. Although it is a small and insignificant Palestinian village, it has an important place in the history of Christianity. It was one of the places for which Christ had a special affection and would visit frequently. This was due to the strong bonds of friendship that Jesus Christ had with the family of Lazarus and with the leper who some believed was the father of the saint.
The invitation of Christ to the house of Martha and Maria, sisters of Lazarus, is a well-known event. While Martha "was distracted by her many tasks" Maria sat "at Jesus's feet and listened to his preaching" (Luke 10:38-42). The event for which Bethany became renowned was the resurrection of Lazarus (John 11:1-44) through which the Lord forwarned His own resurrection. This is why the hymns sung during the Saturday of Lazarus give prime emphasis on the sacrament of the joint resurrection and then to the memory of the saint.
Other than these two events which took place in Bethany, there are accounts of hospitality extended to Jesus Christ and visits to the home of Simon the Leper (John 12:1-8, Mark 14:3-9, Matthew 16:6-13, John 12:9-11, Matthew 21:17).
Naturally, the miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus angered the Jews and "the High Priests planned to put Lazarus to death" (John 12:9-11), as he constituted living evidence of the miracle. Therefore the banished saint fled to the island of Cyprus where he encountered the apostles Paul and Barnabas and was ordained as the first Bishop of Citium.
Ancient Citium, home to the philosopher Zeno, had the honour to propagate the teachings of the Lord through a personal friend of Christ. According to Saint Epiphanios, Bishop of Constantia of Cyprus (367-403), the righteous Lazarus lived on for another 30 years after his resurrection.
Historical accounts describe him as sullen and frowning during his lifetime which was due to all that he had witnessed during his four-day stay in the underworld. The same historical accounts report that he had only smiled once during his lifetime and that was when he saw someone stealing an earthen pot on which he commented aphoristically: "a piece of soil steals another piece of soil".
Another historical account indicates some association of the saint to the salt lake in Larnaka (the present day name of Citium). In the present location of the salt lake there used to be a vineyard. As he was passing by this spot one day the saint felt thirsty and asked for some grapes from the woman who owned the vineyard. She refused and in order to punish her he transformed the enormous vineyard into a salt lake. This account has been confirmed by the workers who collect the salt. They claim to have found roots and branches of the vineyard when digging in the salt lake. Another legend describes the existence of a well with sweet water in the middle of the salt lake, known as the well of "rgas" i.e. the well of the old lady. According to the Synaxarion (Constantinople's Biographies of Saints), the lake was contested by two brothers who fought tooth and nail against each other to acquire it. The saint "through prayer drained the lake and reduced its contents to salt".
In the text of "Patria" on Mount Athos, there are strong references associating Cyprus and Saint Lazarus with the Virgin Mary and Mount Athos. Accompanied by John the Evangelist, the Virgin Mary came to Citium where she met Saint Lazarus and offered him a pallium and a pair of maniples before continuing on her way to visit Mount Athos.
According to the Constantinople Biographies of Saints, the saint was buried in a marble tomb inscribed with the words "the fourth day Lazarus, friend of Christ". This tomb was later placed in a small church.
In addition to the information provided by Saint Epiphanios regarding the thirty years of Saint Lazarus's second lifetime, there is an even earlier account according to researchers relating to Saint Lazarus's stay in Cyprus taken from Saint John of Eu(r)oia, priest and monk of the Patriarchate of Antioch (circa 744). In his speech "On the Fourth Day Lazarus", the Saint says: "For an old man told me, who was privy to information about the blessed Lazarus through some of the saint's memoranda, that he became bishop on the island of Cyprus and wore the wreath of a martyr for the sake of Jesus Christ; he executed his duties to the full, stayed on the path of virtue and upheld his faith and is now in perpetual bliss in the company of Christ".
Around the year 744 word spread in Antioch about Saint Lazarus. The information surrounding the death of the saint, as being that of a martyr, became a point of interest.
The thirty-year presence of Saint Lazarus on the episcopal throne of Citium has also been recorded by Saint Theodore the Studite (759-826), who reports in his catechitisms: "We celebrate the anniversary of the death or rather the resurrection of the most blessed Lazarus, who, after his return from the dead, lived on for a further thirty years in accordance with the word of God, and served as a bishop".
The exhumation and translation of Saint Lazarus's remains from Citium to Constantinople commemorated by the Church on the 17th of October of each year, was completed during the year 899/900 following the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI the Wise.
The translation of the holy relics has been described in great detail in two celebratory speeches delivered by the Metropolitan of Caesarea Arethas (850 - c. 932), a disciple of Photios the Great, while standing in front of the relics and in the presence of the Emperor. In his first speech, the priest highly commended the arrival of the the holy relics at Constantinople, while in his second speech he gives a lengthy description of the procession, participated in by the Emperor, during which the relics were translated from Chrysoupolis to Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. In exchange for the translation of the relics to Constantinople, Leo VI sent money and builders to Cyprus to erect the splendid Church of the Saint, well preserved to this day in Larnaka. Moreover he built a monastery in Constantinople named after the virtuous Lazarus, which housed the saint's remains. Later on the relics of Maria Magdalene were also translated to this same monastery. During the Byzantine years it was customary for the Byzantine Emperor to pray in this monastery on the Saturday of Lazarus.
It is thought that the remains of the saint must have been translated to Constantinople in the old marble tomb. This has been deduced from the fact that the marble tomb which is found today under the altar of the homonymous church in Larnaka bears the large inscription "PHILIOY" (belonging to Philios), while the old one bore the inscription "the fourth day Lazarus, friend of Christ". On the 23rd of November 1972, some of the remains of the righteous Lazarus were found in the present shrine.
This indicates that the people of Citium could not have handed over all the relics to the Emperor. Moreover, in his orations Arethas mentions "bones" and "dust" not to an entire body.
There is also an account originating from a Russian source at Oxford Library which describes a Russian monk from the Monastery of Pskov, who in the 16th century visited the town of Larnaka, bowed before Saint Lazarus's relics and took a small piece. This piece can be found to this day in the Chapel of Saint Lazarus at the Monastery of Pskov. The accessibility of the Russian monk to the Saint's remains leads to the conclusion that the shrine with the remaining relics was visible to the pilgrims at least until the 16th century. Later on, at an unknown date, the people of Citium concealed them under the altar where they remained until their discovery around the year 1972, following a fire in the church.