Whenever you are around people who are very, very happy, you will likely see tears. These are tears of joy, wonder, gratitude, satisfaction that come from a deep place in a person’s soul, when someone has experienced a kind of greatness 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, 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. Tears of sorrow expose a person’s deepest vulnerabilities, longings, and losses.
To see someone crying out of joy, or weeping out of grief may prime the well of our own tears. Somehow we identify with them, being uncontrollably happy for them, which gives us our own cheer. Or we may find ourselves suffering with them, which evokes our own compassion, sometimes 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 – our own 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. With tears there are no divisions of class, socio-economic background, education, race, age, or stature. When we cry, we are like the next person, something we share with the whole of humankind. Some of us may have been trained not to cry, certainly not publicly, because our tears are too revealing. We may need to re-learn that crying is okay, even necessary, and certainly nothing to apologize for.
The Gospel passage appointed for today includes one of the shortest sentences in the entire Bible: “Jesus began to weep.” Jesus had been told, just several days earlier, that his dear friend Lazarus was gravely ill. On hearing this, Jesus He tells his disciples not to worry. His friend Lazarus has just “fallen asleep.” Jesus says that his friend’s illness will not “lead to death; rather it is to God’s glory.” Jesus stays behind for two more days before setting off. Jesus then goes to meet this family whom he loves deeply – Mary and Martha, and their brother, Lazarus. But Lazarus is not sleeping. He’s dead, and for four days. There’s even a stench. And Jesus weeps. Now 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 an “oral history” remembered and retold for many, many decades before it was finally written down in a form 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. Jesus stalls. He stalls for the same reason that I have stalled when given news of some great tragedy that is before me. Many-a-time, when I was a hospital chaplain, I had to pause in a hospital corridor before I walked into a room of sorrow. It’s the same kind of pausing I’ve done when faced with terrible news about one of my own friends or a family member. A pause, just to “get it together,” to be re-centered and grounded before I plunged into a well of grief awaiting me. You may know about this in your own personal life, of needing to pause before you faced a tragedy. 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. He has lost his friend. Has he also lost his bearings, or lost his certainty, or lost his courage, or lost his sense of power, or maybe lost his theology? We don’t know. He has certainly lost his composure. Jesus weeps. Something here has moved Jesus to his core.
All the theologizing happens in retrospect. Jesus’ friend Lazarus did sort-of symbolically “fall asleep,” and his illness does not “lead to death; rather it is to God’s glory.” I do believe that Jesus said that… but later. I think these words 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: this is all to God’s glory. But what is absolutely authentic in-the-moment is Jesus’ weeping on seeing his dead friend, Lazarus. We don’t really know what’s behind Jesus’ tears, any more than we can know with full certainly why any person weeps. 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. Jesus’ tears flow so spontaneously, flowing like a river connecting earth and heaven.
If we only had the story of Jesus’ hearing of his friend Lazarus’ grave illness, 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. But Jesus weeps.
In our world there are so many people who are not brought back to life: a murdered child, an executed prisoner, a soldier or bystander shot, a family washed away in a mudslide, a poor soul who has starved to death, a lifeless loved one who was ravaged by disease…. These are not being brought back to life. Not on this earth. Not according to our newspapers. We as Christians do believe in what we call “the resurrection,” that life on this earth is not the end, but that our end is in God where, as we read in the last book of the Bible, “there shall be weeping no more,” and where God will finally “wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.” 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 comfort, a real grace, as we watch and wait with the world.
One of life’s early 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. 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 – and we find ourselves uncontrollably moved, or unavoidably stopped, and our watering eyes tell the truth.
Spiritually speaking, these moments are very grace-filled, 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 sighing too deep for words.” 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 that is 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, to where we will bring the gifts of bread and wine. Bread symbolizes the sustenance we know in Jesus’ real presence in the form of broken bread: 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 the 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. That water symbolizes the “gift of tears,” Jesus’ tears and our own.
We don’t need to go looking for tears. Tears have a way of finding us in the best of times and in the worst of times. Those moments in life when we well up with tears, what has broken forth is evidence of a greatness bigger than who we are. Tears may give us pause. They also give us presence: God’s real presence among us in the face and form of Jesus who weeps. Jesus weeps for us and Jesus weeps with us: God with us, meeting us in both the sweetest and sorriest of times through the gift of tears. We read in the psalms, “For with you, O Lord, is the well of life.” 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. The gift of tears.
- Romans 12:15.
- Revelation 7:17; 21:4.
- The psalms make reference to an ancient practice of saving the gift of tears: “You have noted my lamentation; put my tears into your bottle.” Psalm 56:8.
- Romans 8.26.
- Psalm 36:9.
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