The fifth Sunday of Lent is traditionally known as Passion Sunday. During the two weeks between Passion Sunday and Easter, we are called upon to meditate on Jesus’s suffering and death. For the most part, our preoccupation with suffering and death leaves Jesus out, so as to focus strictly on ourselves. We hear, think, and talk about little else these days but the coronavirus and its death-dealing effects in our midst.
As Christians, we face a crucial question: Does our collective preoccupation with the coronavirus get in the way of our ecclesial calling to meditate upon Jesus’s passion?
I ask this question in all seriousness. According to our secular culture, nothing is worse (and more to be avoided) than pain and suffering. The media frenzy attending the current pandemic stems largely from our cultural addiction to economic and physical well-being as ultimate goods. To deliberately enter into Jesus’s passion would be alien to our most deeply held cultural axioms: Maximize pleasure and minimize pain.
No, I am not calling for an inversion of the cultural ethos, suggesting that we maximize pain and minimize pleasure. The coronavirus is an evil. We rightly do what we can to stop its transmission, and we ought to plead with God for mercy. We should not take lightly the tears caused by suffering. I am not suggesting that we stop reflecting and deliberating on the virus that has taken hold of our lives. But in order to rightly understand our present sufferings, we must reflect upon Christ’s.
The Gospel reading for Passion Sunday includes the words, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). He is not the only one weeping at Lazarus’s death. Martha and Mary are weeping, as is the entire community that is trying to console them (11:31, 33). The story is full of people weeping in the pain of passion. The story of Lazarus is the story of our world—a world of sickness and death, along with the inevitable consequence of mourning and weeping.
We do well to attend to Jesus’s tears, for it is only by meditation upon his tears that we are able to process our own. Why does Jesus weep? The question is pressing because Jesus cannot possibly be weeping in the same way that Martha, Mary, and the bystanders are weeping. The narrative doesn’t allow us to think that Jesus is mourning the loss of his friend. He has travelled to Bethany with the precise aim of raising Lazarus from the dead (11:4, 11). Hippolytus of Rome adroitly observes: “He wept but did not mourn.”
Why, then, does Jesus weep? He weeps because he meditates upon our passion. Just as we are called to “weep with those who weep” (Rom.15:12), so Jesus weeps with those who weep. (In fact, Saint Augustine suggests that the reason Jesus weeps here is to teach us to weep; this must at least be part of the picture.) Jesus weeps with Martha and Mary, with the Jewish bystanders, and with a world struggling with illness, suffering, and death.
We should not miss the intensity of Jesus’s emotional upheaval. He was “deeply moved,” suggest many recent translations—a hopeless sentimentalizing of his passion. Jesus’s grief is mixed with furious anger and indignation. The Greek term here, embrimaomai, is reminiscent of a bristling, snorting stallion.
What upsets Jesus so? Is it Martha and Mary’s confounded reproach, “Lord, if you had been here . . .” (11:21, 32)? Is it the bystanders’ unwarranted censure that he should have kept Lazarus from dying (11:37)? Is it the grief and pain that he reads in all of their faces? Is it the havoc that illness and death cause in the lives of the people he loves? It is all of these. Jesus meditates on our passion and weeps.
Reflect for a moment on the incomprehensible depth of these words, “Jesus wept.” His passion deliberately and fully exposes him to the virus we carry. When Jesus weeps, he opens himself up to our illness; he takes on our passion; he enters our grief. We meditate on Jesus’s tears, but comprehend them we cannot. Why not? Their flow contains nothing less than the pooled passion of the entire human race.
The biblical lessons and the Psalm appointed for Passion Sunday remind us of the depth of Jesus’s tears. They depict the valley of the dry bones—the mass grave of exiles (Ezek. 37). They cry out from the depths (de profundis) of the psalmist’s iniquities (Ps. 130). And (depending on the assigned reading in your church), they speak of slavery to sin (Rom. 6). When Jesus weeps at Lazarus’s graveside, he weeps for all of this.
Still, Jesus’s tears are not just tears of lament. I suspect they are tears of joy at the same time. Dry bones come to life when the Spirit of God breathes on them. Iniquities are forgiven when the Lord sends redemption to Israel. And slaves of sin become slaves of righteousness when in faith and baptism we are united to Christ Jesus. Each of the readings offers resurrection hope beyond passion and death. Jesus’s tears are a promise that grief of illness and death will be overcome by joy of life eternal.
The church fathers were fond of saying that whatever our Lord did in his incarnation, he did “for our sake.” His weeping is no exception. Jesus weeps “on account of the people standing round” (11:42). That doesn’t mean his tears are fake. Quite the contrary, as we have seen. But it does mean that Jesus’s tears are infinitely dissimilar to ours. They are not tears of impotence. They are the tears of God. And when God weeps, we may be sure our passion is about to yield to resurrection.
We are inundated with news updates about the passion and death caused by COVID-19. Our deliberation on the current crisis is futile—counterproductive, in fact—apart from deliberation on the passion and death of our Savior. Our suffering lies encapsulated in his suffering, our weeping in his weeping.
Our meditation, too, should be encapsulated in his. For only by meditating on Jesus’s passion are we united to his meditation on our passion.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House.