There is a curious phenomenon that has filled much of our media in the last weeks, in the last year. It is not a new thing. It has an intensity, very powerful and yet often silent, uncontrollable, sometimes endless, mysterious, revealing, deeply moving. It is universal. And that is the presence of tears. We’ve seen so many people with tears in their eyes pictured in our newspapers and on our screens. On the one hand there are the kind of tears we’ve seen in the faces of award-winning actors, victorious politicians, triumphant athletes, parents proud of the accomplishments of their children and grandchildren. These are tears of joy, wonder, gratitude, satisfaction that come from a place so deep in a person’s soul, their having experienced a kind of greatness in life so amazing, almost too great to behold. Something simply bursts with a release of ecstasy streaming down a person’s face. Of all the things that can be planned in life, tears of joy and gladness do not need to be choreographed. They simply happen. And it is the same for the tears of sorrow we see on the faces of orphans and parents and siblings, on the faces of refugees, and soldiers, and prisoners whose faces also haunt us day by day. These are tears of pain or loss, burning the eyes like from the salt of the sea, and coming from a place as deep and endless as the ocean. Such tears of sorrow convert a person’s composure into the exposure of their deepest vulnerabilities, longings, and losses. We see these tears of grief in the media and on our streets washing over people like endless waves.
To see someone crying out of joy or weeping out of grief may prime the well of our own tears… and we find ourselves crying along with this other person: someone whom we may know or perhaps even a total stranger. Somehow we identify with them, being uncontrollably happy for them, which gives us our own cheer, or suffering with them, which evokes our own compassion, perhaps the memory of our own grief. Saint Paul writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” and in the face of tears – someone’s tears of gladness or tears of sadness – you may find yourself simply, quite naturally rejoicing or weeping with them.i Your tears simply flow.
Tears on the face of an infant may be the first, most revealing sign of how abjectly needy we all are, how small we all are in the face of life which is so big. We need not be taught how to cry. It’s how most of us begin life. A good many of us, I suspect, have been taught not to cry, because tears are too revealing, sometimes too humiliating. With tears there are no divisions of class, socio-economic background, education, age, or stature. When we cry, we are like the next person. It may be the most “same” thing that we all share with the whole of humankind. Some of us may have been socialized not to cry, certainly not publicly, and as we grow into life we may need to re-learn this gift of tears.
The gospel lesson appointed for today includes the shortest sentences of the entire Bible: “Jesus wept.” Jesus had been told, just several days earlier, that his dear friend Lazarus was ill. On hearing this, Jesus says that his friend’s illness will not “lead to death; rather it is to God’s glory.” He even says to his disciples that his friend Lazarus has just “fallen asleep.” Jesus stays behind for two more days before setting off to see his dying friend. According to the gospel story, Jesus then goes to meet this family whom he loves deeply – Mary and Martha, sisters to Lazarus, and Lazarus. Lazarus is not sleeping. He’s dead, and for four days. There’s even a stench. And Jesus weeps. Of course we read the Bible backwards. This is not a transcription of CNN live coverage of what actually happened at the time. This is how things were remembered in hindsight. This gospel story about Jesus and Lazarus was “oral history” for many, many decades, remembered and re-told and re-told until it was finally written down in a form similar to what we read today in our Bible. If we actually had a transcription of what happened in this story, moment-by-moment, how would the news account actually read? We have no way of knowing, but this is how I imagine it.
When the news reaches Jesus that his dear friend, Lazarus, is very ill, and then, that he has died, Jesus stalls. There’s no theologizing on Jesus part that “Lazarus’ illness will not lead to death, but rather to God’s glory.” That’s true, but those words were added later, in retrospect. At the time Jesus hears of Lazarus’ mortal illness, then death, Jesus stalls for the same reason that I have stalled for moments or minutes or hours or days when given news of some great tragedy that is before me. Many a time, when I was a hospital chaplain, I had to momentarily pause in a hospital corridor before I walked into a room of tragedy. It’s the same kind of pausing I’ve done when faced with tragic news about a dear friend or family member. A pause, just to “get it together,” to be centered and grounded before I plunge into a well of grief awaiting me. You may know about this in your own personal life, of needing to pause before you’ve faced a tragic reality. I think this is what Jesus is doing when he pauses on hearing the tragic news about his beloved friend, Lazarus. When Jesus does arrive on the scene, and sees his friend Lazarus very much dead, Jesus spontaneously weeps. He absolutely loses it. Jesus’ tears reveal he has lost something very deeply. He has lost his friend. Has he also lost his bearings, or has he lost his certainty, or his courage, or his sense of power, or maybe his theology? He has certainly lost his composure. Jesus weeps. Something here has moved Jesus to his core.
All the theologizing happens in retrospect. It’s true that, as Jesus says, his friend’s illness does not “lead to death; rather it is to God’s glory,” and that Lazarus did figuratively “fall asleep…” I do believe that Jesus said that… but later. The words are true, but I think they were cut and pasted by the later biblical scribes, the redactors, to make this biblical story theologically correct from the moment Jesus originally hears about Lazarus. It’s all true what Jesus said, but actually written in retrospect. (It’s just like I’ve so often been able to see something incredibly good coming out of what, at the time, was incredibly bad.) What is absolutely authentic is Jesus’ weeping on seeing his dead friend, Lazarus. We don’t really know what’s behind Jesus’ tears, any more, I suppose, than we can know with full certainly why any person is weeping. (Weeping usually has to do with something that is present and with something that is past. Weeping draws on the well of someone’s history.) But I find that oh-so-brief moment of Jesus’ weeping – where he is doing nothing and saying nothing – one of the most helpful scenes in the entire gospel: this scene of Jesus’ tears flowing so spontaneously, flowing like a river connecting earth and heaven.
If we only had the story of Jesus’ hearing of his friend’s great need, of Jesus’ arrival on the scene, of his resolving the crisis, of his bringing “victory” and glory to God in raising Lazarus… if we only had that, we would have so much less help as we try to make sense out of the endless griefs that fill our own day and our own lives. Jesus weeps.
In this life there are so many things that are not being fixed: a murdered child, an executed prisoner, a shrapnelled student or soldier, an incinerated family, a poor soul who has starved to death, a lifeless loved one having been ravaged by disease…. These are not being brought back to life. Not on this earth. Not according to our newspapers and the other stories we hear. We as Christians do believe in something we call “the resurrection,” that life on this earth is not the end, but that our end is in God where, as we hear in the last story of the Bible, “there shall be weeping no more,” and where God will finally “wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.”ii But in this mean time, there may well be many tears of enormous, unspeakable grief and loss. This picture of Jesus’ weeping may be a real help, a real grace, as we watch and wait with the world.
One of life’s lessons is our learning how to act in life. We are taught what to do and say, how to appear and speak as we navigate our way through life. That kind of “enculturation” is necessary, and we’ve all, undoubtedly, learned our various life scripts. But there are these moments in life when we lose our props and lose our makeup, when we are in the presence of greatness – sometimes the greatest of joys and sometimes the greatest of losses – where we find ourselves uncontrollably moved, or unavoidably stopped, and our watering eyes tell the truth.
Spiritually speaking, these moments are very grace-full, though they may not feel it at the time. It’s like a dam has been broken within us, something which we have held dearly, or held back, or held up is broken and what gushes forth out of the dregs of our heart, is something utterly real about who we are and what we need. It’s not our glittering image but our authentic self. In the ancient vocabulary of the church, this is called “the gift of tears.” It’s what Saint Paul is talking about when he writes that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but [God’s] Spirit intercedes [for us] with sighs too deep for words.”iii God’s Spirit sighing within us. Not solving, but sighing. This is the gift of tears, sometimes a costly gift but an incredibly cleansing gift. Whatever you know about tears – your own or others’ – tears are part of the flow of life. Tears may be our best prayers when we witness beauty too great to behold, or a loss so vast we can barely even see ahead. And the tears come. Use those tears. Learn from those tears.
Momentarily we will turn our focus to the altar, where we will bring the gifts of bread and wine. Bread symbolizes the sustenance we know in Jesus’ real presence in the form of brokenness: Jesus’ body broken for us for our own broken selves. Wine symbolizes the outpouring of Jesus’ blood, streaming with loss and streaming with life. And there is just one other thing, a very small gesture, almost as subtle as a tear in the corner of someone’s eye. And that is water. As we set the altar, the priest pours a very small amount of water into the chalice of wine. The wine is “cut” with just a few drops of water. This is a living reminder of the gift of tears: Jesus’ tears and our own. Tears meet us in the best of times and in the worst of times.
It seems to me we don’t need to go looking for tears. Tears have a way of finding us, which is quite the point. Those moments in our life, most often beyond our control, when we well up with tears, what has broken forth is evidence of a greatness bigger than who we are. Inevitably tears give us pause because they give us presence: God’s real presence among us in the face and form of Jesus who weeps, and who weeps with us and for us. This is God with us, meeting us in both the sweetest and sorriest of times in the gift of tears. We read in the psalms, “For with you, O Lord, is the well of life.”iv Tears come from a deep well within our own soul. Tears are an estuary from God and to God, something which Jesus himself knew. Jesus weeps. He weeps for himself. He weeps for Lazarus. He weeps for Jerusalem. He weeps for you and for the whole world. Don’t run from tears; let the tears run when they come. Our tears do not come out of emptiness; they come out of a very deep well from which Jesus himself draws.
“You have noted my lamentation; put my tears into your bottle.”
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.