Saturday, April 11, 2009

Jesus' Tears (Lazarus Saturday)

Over the last few weeks, the number of visits to this blog site has increased greatly. If you are a new reader of this blog, I welcome you and thank you for joining us. I hope that you will continue checking in. I thank all of you who bless me by visiting this blog--especially those who comment regularly. I wish each of you a blessed Palm Sunday and Holy Week.

Since so many of you are relatively new to this blog, I thought I would repost some reflections that I wrote last year on John 11:35, which simply says, "Jesus wept." If you have already read this, I ask your forgiveness. I pray that this article will be helpful to all of you.

O Christ God, when Thou didst raise Lazarus from the dead, before Thy Passion, thou didst confirm the universal resurrection. Wherefore, we like babes, carry the insignia of triumph and victory, and cry to Thee, O vanquisher of death, Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord.-- Troparion of the Saturday of St. Lazarus

My father was a tough-as-nails career Marine officer who fought in the jungles of Southeast Asia during World War II and in the frozen no-man’s-land that was the Korean Conflict. He was hardened by years of horrifying experiences that would have made Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone, or Arnold Schwarzenegger run away screaming. In the thirty-six years that I knew him, I never once saw him cry. Except when he gave in to an occasional outburst of anger, he was a model of emotional control. Compared to him, Mr. Spock and his fellow Vulcans were a bunch of emotional basket cases!

Dad always taught me to exhibit the same emotional control that he did, and in this he largely succeeded. As a result, I seldom ever find myself crying, except during an occasional tear-jerking part of a movie such as the “let’s play catch” scene in Field of Dreams. I’m not saying that this stoicism is good or bad; it’s just the way I am. I am without a doubt my father’s son, and weeping is just not part of my modius operandi.

But when my mother unexpectedly died in 2002, I found myself weeping uncontrollably off-and-on for days. The same thing happened two years later when my father finally succumbed to complications caused by the Alzheimer’s Disease that had ravaged him for over eight years. Two years, after then, when my daughter Audrey and I visited his grave in Arlington National Cemetery, I (foolishly, I know) told myself, “Don’t cry. Be tough. Hold it in!” And yet, when I actually laid eyes on his tombstone, I broke into an uncontrollable fit of sobbing that lasted for nearly 15 minutes.

This led me to reflect on the following question: What is it about death that makes even modern-day Vulcans like myself break down and weep? I have often heard death referred to as “The Great Equalizer,” and this is certainly true. All of us, no matter whether we are rich or poor, good or evil, Christian or non-Christian, have an appointment with death. And yet, the facet of death that makes it so hard to deal with is its being what I call “The Great Separator.” Perhaps the worst thing about death is that it separates us from those whom we love. When someone we loves dies, we lose the joy of being in their presence—seeing their face, hearing their voice, and feeling their embrace. And even if they seem to have died in Christ, there always remains that slight inkling of doubt: will I really ever see him or her again?

This brings us to today’s Gospel reading, John 11:1-45, which tells the story of the raising of Lazarus. This passage contains the shortest verse in the Bible, at least in the English version, verse 35: “Jesus wept.” I often used to wonder exactly why Jesus wept. He did not weep for the same reason that I wept when I lost my mother and my father. For the Lord knew that his separation from Lazarus would be very short-lived. He knew even before Lazarus died that He would raise him from the dead. So why, then, did he weep?

Some commentators have suggested that Jesus wept out of compassion for Mary and Martha. There is no question that this is part of why Jesus wept. He deeply loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and it was hard for him to see them experience a loss as great as that of their beloved brother, especially at a relatively young age. As the prophet Isaiah wrote of our Lord, “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (53:4a, NKJV). And yet, I think that there is much more behind Jesus’ tears than merely compassion and empathy, great though they were.

I believe that the clue to Jesus’ tears lies in a verb that St. John uses in verses 33 and 38. The root of this verb is the Greek embrimaomai, which is usually translated here as “groaned in the/his spirit” (KJV, ASV, NKJV) or “was deeply moved in spirit” (NASB, RSV, NIV). Both of these translations give the impression that Jesus was moved by grief. However, as Fr. Lawrence Farley points out in his excellent commentary on St. John’s Gospel,

The Greek word…savors not of grief, but of anger. It is used for the snorting of horses in secular literature; in March 1:43 and Matthew 9:30, it is translated "sternly warn,” and in Mark 14:5, it is translated “scold.” In all of its uses, the word conveys the idea of indignation. Christ, therefore, was not here moved with grief over His friend; He was moved with anger at the Enemy, and indignation that all the Father’s world could be so ruined.

So more than being moved by mere grief or compassion, our Lord was, in Fr. Farley’s words, “furious at the ancient serpent for wreaking this havoc.” In his thirty-something years of life, Jesus had no doubt seen a great deal of death, but now he had had enough! He was not going to allow death and Hades to claim his beloved friend, at least not now.

Jesus’ anger at death can be seen indirectly in his somewhat testy response to Martha’s objection to his command to roll away the stone from Lazarus’ tomb: “Lord, already he smells, for it is the fourth day.” To this, our Savior replies, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”

And so, the Lord Jesus, fed up with the Great Separator, marches to the tomb as a conqueror, intent on denying Death yet another victim. And, as Fr. Farley says, “looking on that blocked-up cave, He beheld not just the buried corpse of His friend, but the corpse of the whole world.” By raising Lazarus, Jesus gives the world a foretaste of the victory that he would win over death through his death, resurrection, and ascension, as well as an anticipation and an image of the final resurrection from the dead.

Holy Father Lazarus, pray to the Lord that our souls may be saved!


elizabeth said...

Blessed Holy Week to you Father James!

I remember reading this post last year. It is one of my favourites.

I found Orthodoxy itself, and having a spiritual father, has helped me and other I know learn to weep. It seems to be part of our healing, esp. when related to loss and grief.

Thanks for re-posting this.

Anonymous said...

Father James,
I most respectfully beg to differ with you about your stoicism. A stoic man mostly shows no emotion, neither fear, sorrow disappointment, or grief, nor joy, happiness, or excitement. I have seen your smiles that betray your joy in loving the Lord and serving Him as a priest. Your eyes and face give away your love for the congregation, and your voice betrays your excitement about so many things in life, be it your family, your taching, your alma mater's sports team, or your description of a day ay the soup kitchen. God's love shines through you whether you realize it or not. Again, most respectfully,

Fr. James Early said...


Thank you for the kind words, and you are correct. I stand corrected. I need to re-write that article a little bit, because it gives the wrong impression. I was raised to be a stoic only in regard to showing grief (mainly crying) -- not in other ways. My dad was certainly no stoic when it came to anger, and neither am I by nature -- though I am working on it. :-)