“Then Jesus Wept.” John 11:35 (New Living Translation)
This is the shortest verse in the Bible, often simply written as “Jesus wept.” That’s one fun Sunday school tidbit that has stuck with me since childhood. In this story, Jesus comes to see Lazarus, who has been sick, only to arrive and to find out that he has already died. When he approaches Lazarus’ tomb, and before the miraculous resurrection of Lazarus from the dead, Jesus weeps. It’s a powerful, deeply human moment.
Today is Good Friday. The day when we remember Jesus’ crucifixion and death. It’s often a mournful and reflective day. And frankly, it’s a day that I have not always known what to do with. There’s not a lot about this day that seems “good” to me. Part of this problem stems from some unease with death. Death, no matter when it comes, is never something simple to make sense of. It seems to be a complicated process bound up with many emotions. You could also look at the story of Jesus that I’ve been taught, which tends to emphasize the day-to-day narrative of the life of Jesus, his actions, his treatment of people, his nonviolent stance, his preference for the poor and his resurrection over and above Jesus’ death as a salvific moment.
And then you can add to that list feminist and womanist critiques of atonement, which suggest that God mandating Jesus’ death could be compared to divine child abuse. In Proverbs of Ashes, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker describe the ways that setting up self-sacrifice as the mark of a good Christian sets up systems and expectations that can lead women to stay in abusive relationships and can cease to address unhealthy patterns of abuse.
Of some theology, which emphasizes the necessity of Jesus’ death, Parker says, “But this theology can fail to serve life. It takes a historical act of violence and misapplies it to a spiritual truth…What happens when violent realities are transubstantiated into spiritual teachings? You’ve heard it or said it yourself. A mother loses her son to suicide. In an effort to comfort her you say, ‘God has a purpose in this.’”
And womanist theologian Delores Williams notes that by casting Jesus as a scapegoat for all human sin, theologians may have inadvertently (or even purposefully) painted oppressive systems that exploit black women, like surrogacy, as divinely ordained.
So, suffice it to say, I’ve got my reservations about Good Friday, and my tendency has been to ignore this day and skip straight to Easter. But that doesn’t seem adequate either. A robust Christology, and a robust understanding of how God works in the world, must also answer questions about suffering and loss. Weeping is a part of what it means to be fully human, and we cannot evade death forever.
Jesus was uniquely attuned to God’s call, and was able to enact in history a visible sign of God’s reign on earth. Jesus’ ministry was marked by love. As Alfred North Whitehead writes, Jesus, channeling God, “…dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and quietly operate by love.” In this way, the spirit of Jesus’ ministry is with us whenever we embrace life.
But perhaps the world, and we ourselves, are not always ready to embrace this particular vision. As John Cobb notes, there is often a disconnect between what we wish and expect to be true and what is true; between our hopes and dreams and between reality. We do not always choose life and love. Jesus’ life, which “afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted” ( from Reinhold Neibuhr), was and is an affront to systems that sought to perpetuate the status quo. This affront was not to be borne, and I think that most of us know how this particular story ends on Good Friday.
And then, I think, God wept, too. Just like Jesus wept upon losing Lazarus. And like we all weep when things do not go according to plan.
I’m convinced that God weeps alongside us still: when racist undercurrents result in the death of a young man like Trayvon Martin; when our states pass dehumanizing immigration legislation; when our churches fail to be welcoming and inclusive places and whenever we choose against those things that give life.