Sowing in tears

Daniel Bonnell, “Jesus Wept.” Oil on canvas, 34 x 46 in. Tags: Lazarus

This week’s lectionary blog relates to the readings for All Saints’ Day which this year is likely to be celebrated in many churches on this coming Sunday, October 31st. We explore the suggested Gospel, John 11.32-44 and give briefer attention to the New Testament reading Revelation 21.1-6.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship

Traditionally (and certainly etched into my own mind) the Gospel reading for All Saints is the Beatitudes – the stellar opening of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.1-12 in the Gospel of Matthew.  I certainly feel that in some form or other the Beatitudes rightfully have a place in the worship on All Saints Day. I especially cherish their setting as the so-called Russian Beatitudes, in which as a refrain between each couplet is inserted ‘Amen! Truly I say to you, this day you will be with me in paradise’. There is an excellent recording of this by St David’s Church, Exeter at . (In parenthesis it is worth saying that St David’s choir has done youtube recordings of quite a wide range of interesting songs, hymns, chants, and that their choirmaster is generously willing to allow other churches to make use of their recordings.)

Since our use of the Common Worship (Revised Common) lectionary there have however been three different sets of readings suggested for All Saints, depending on whether one is in Year A, B or C. Year A (‘the year of Matthew’) makes use of the traditional reading of Matthew’s Beatitudes. Year C (‘the year of Luke’) draws on Luke’s equivalent passage of beatitudes and woes, Luke 6.20ff. Year B, the current year, normally draws on Mark’s Gospel as much as possible. But there are no beatitudes in Mark! So, for whatever reason, the decision was taken by the lectionary compilers to suggest that in this Year B, the suggested Gospel for All Saints should be John 11.32-44. This is part of the account of Jesus’ raising from the dead, Lazarus of Bethany. It feels quite a ‘jarring’ biblical text to link with All Saints, very different in focus and style from the ‘beatitudes’ in Matthew and Luke which appear in the other years. One of the notable features of the story is that unlike ‘all’ the saints who are described as ‘blessed’ in Matthew and Luke, the raising of Lazarus from the dead as described in the Gospel of John is clearly presented as an exceptional and unique experience which happened to one particular individual. There is a link from the story of Lazarus to a wider picture – but it goes in perhaps another direction. Namely in the Gospel of John we can see a clear and intentional link between Jesus’ giving of life to Lazarus and the way that Jesus’ own death is a direct result of these life-giving actions. The picture (below) by Caravaggio actually depicts the raising of Lazarus, but it would also (deliberately) be possible to view it as the taking down of the body of Jesus from the cross.

Caravaggio, The raising of Lazarus

It would be very interesting to see into the minds of the lectionary compilers and discover why this passage from the Gospel of John was chosen as a reading for All Saints!  But since that is beyond my immediate capabilities let me share some thoughts that I hope may provide useful directions for preachers and others.

This is one of the comparatively few passages in the Gospel of John where Jesus shows what we might call deep human emotions.

The words used in these verses are fascinating. Verse 33 says of Jesus that ‘he was greatly disturbed (enebrimesato) in spirit and deeply moved (etaraxen)’. Verse 38 repeats a form of the Greek word enebrimesato when it says ‘Jesus, again greatly disturbed’ (embrimomenos)

Both Greek verbs referred to here are quite rare – especially embrimaomai . Other than the two occurrences of the verb in this passage in the Gospel of John, it only appears (in the New Testament) twice in the Gospel of Mark and once in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew’s example, and in one of the passages in Mark it is translated ‘sternly charged’ and it is used when Jesus tells two recipients of miraculous healings to make sure they don’t tell anyone about what has happened to them! (Although they then disobey these instructions). The other instance in Mark’s Gospel comes in Mark 14.5 when the disciples ‘scold’ the woman who has poured expensive ointment over Jesus. I remember reading (though I haven’t immediately double checked this) that the verb embrimaomai is linked ultimately to the snorting sound a war-horse makes as it is gearing up for battle!  But it is fascinating to ponder what is the link between these three examples in which people are speaking fiercely to others, and to those two instances in the Gospel of John  when it is used about Jesus himself. It gives me the sense, which I don’t think is entirely mistaken, that Jesus is having an internal battle  with himself – is speaking fiercely to himself – about what he is going to do and its consequences  for himself.  The battle lies ahead!  

Tarasso is slightly more common in the New Testament. But it is intriguing to notice the other examples of this verb in the Gospel of John . With the sole exception of ‘disturbing’ or ‘troubling’  the waters of the Pool of Bethzatha in John 5.7 they come in chapters 12, 13 and 14 – and I don’t think it is accidental that this cluster of uses falls fairly closely together. It is I believe a signal that we are intended to read the instances of this word as a sequence, with one leading to the other.

So we get:

  • Jesus was… deeply moved/troubled (11.33)
  • Now is my soul troubled (12.27)
  • After saying this Jesus was troubled in spirit (13.21)
  • Do not let your hearts be troubled … in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places (14.1)
  • Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid (14.27)

I think the connections we are intended to make are that the ‘troubling’ that Jesus himself felt over the death of his friend, led in turn to the deep troubling that John’s Gospel allows us to see here in chapters 12 and 13, that Jesus, humanly speaking, experienced as his own passion approaches. Yet his own ‘troubling’ in this way means that in turn he can promise and assure his disciples ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled’ for  this passion leads in turn to hospitality for humanity in ‘his father’s house’, to the gift of the Holy Spirit  and  of peace (the antithesis of ‘troubling’).

The emotional depth of both these verbs embrimaomai and tarasso in turn draw us close to that profoundly ‘gut’ word compassion. Compassion does indeed seem to be the primary emotion of Jesus in John 11.

[Compassion expresses] ‘such a deep and central emotion in Jesus that it can only be described as a movement of the womb of God. When Jesus was moved to compassion, the source of all life trembled, the ground of love broke open, and the abyss of God’s inexhaustible and unfathomable tenderness revealed itself’ (Donald McNeill et al, Compassion, DLT, 1982)

And the visible and physical expression of that compassion comes as, in the shortest verse in the New Testament we are told, ‘Jesus wept’ (John 11.35).

One of the great treasures offered to us by the Orthodox Christian East is the importance given to the spiritual value of tears and weeping.  The seventh century St Jacob of Sarug (a city in southern Turkey ) powerfully reflected:

‘You have no tears? Buy tears from the poor. You have no sadness? Call the poor man to moan with you. If your heart is hard and has neither sadness nor tears, with alms invite the needy to weep with you…provide yourself with the water of tears, and may the poor come to help you put out the fire in which you are perishing.’

So tears become an essential element of our call to become more fully human, more truly how God would have us be.

Throughout the Bible tears are the seeds of transformation – and perhaps even resurrection. The Old Testament tells us that ‘those who sow in tears shall reap in joy’ (Psalm 126.5). In the New Testament that link also holds true,  here in John 11 where there seems to be a close link between the tears of the crowd, the tears of Mary, Jesus’ own tears and the resurrection of Lazarus. It is intriguing that in John 20 there also seems to be a similar connection being made between the weeping of Mary and the presence of the risen Jesus who stands before her. Jesus himself gives us permission to weep about the ‘tears of things’ (lacrimae rerum) and models such weeping on our behalf.

What though has weeping and tears to do with All Saints? Perhaps the Gospel is a powerful reminder that it is Jesus’ ability both to share and to transform the depths of human emotions and human grief which has enabled the wonderful vision of the new creation, the new earth, the new heaven, populated by the saints of the Most High. It is indeed appropriate that this year the lectionary ‘matches’ John 11.32-44 with Revelation 21.1-6.    One of the promises offered to these citizens of the ‘holy city’ is that God ‘will wipe every tear from their eyes’ (Revelation 21.4). But have you realised that that is a promise that even God himself cannot keep unless people have first learned how to weep?

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