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5th Sunday of Lent

24 March 2023

Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8.6-11; John 11.1-45


HERE is a quiz question: What is the shortest sentence in the Bible? It is hard for Bible-believing, churchgoing Christians to give an answer; for they will know that God did not write the Bible in English; and that even the Authorised Version is a translation, albeit one with an honoured and weighty history.

The standard answer to the question is John 11.35. To me, it feels like a proud moment for the English language: English rarely beats Latin for succinctness. The Greek uses three words; the Latin, four. But the AV, RSV, and REB need only two: “Jesus wept.” NRSV spoils the power of that brevity, taking four words in its attempt to nail the precise meaning, but to no useful purpose (if it mattered that he began to weep, John would surely have told us when he stopped, too).

At the centre of John’s Gospel, the death and raising of Lazarus is a pivot, perfectly balancing its twin extremities: the fleshification, and the mortification, of the Son of God. Jesus embodies a uniquely human experience. Not even our closest genetic relatives, the apes, do this when distressed. They can certainly suffer, and make sounds expressive of distress; they even mourn. But they do not weep. The scientific term for producing tears is “lachrymate”. No need to be distracted here by crocodiles: apparently, the eyes of some species water when they are eating, but it is not a distress response.

It sometimes seems that John’s Jesus is more superhuman than truly human. His signs of power and his foreknowledge — not to mention his conversations with God the Father — are hardly proofs of what we have in common. Instead, they represent the great gulf between his humanity (perfect) and ours (flawed). At the centre, though, when it matters most to show it, when the terror and indignity of human dissolution is right in front of him, and us, he did what we do. Jesus wept.

“Jesus wept” is unimportant as a quiz answer. As a profanity, “Jesus wept” misappropriates the power of two short words, but empties them of their true meaning. What a waste that so many who use that profanity know nothing of its incarnational heart.

John 11.35 is not, of course, the only time in the Gospels when Jesus shows his emotions. On other occasions, we find him becoming angry, or exasperated, or moved with pity. There are times when we, too, feel like the young man in Wilhelm Müller’s poem, when emotion robs us of words: Ich kann nicht mehr singen, mein Herz ist zu voll (“I can sing no longer, my heart is too full”).

At times like that, Jesus more than once chooses to be alone, away from the gaze of others — as we do, too. Soon, we shall meet him in the garden of Gethsemane and look upon his desolation there. But, even then, he keeps his friends close by: he is aware, perhaps, as they cannot be, that this will be the last time that they spend together on earth in the old way, the way that they have grown used to, the way that is too familiar to be properly valued.

The death of a friend is not a moment when we should feel obliged to display a stiff upper lip — which is an odd phrase, now I come to think of it. When I am brought to tears, it is my lower lip that trembles and gives way. John Donne has said that the death of one person “diminishes” us. That encapsulates how death unravels the fabric of our common life, whether by the slowly pulled thread of a gradual deterioration, or by a gaping rent torn suddenly.

Collectively, we go on living, fashioning fresh memories, weaving new relationships, patching that life-fabric so that it continues to hold together. It is not a satin, smoothly perfect, but slippery to sew and hard to care for. It is an uneven patchwork, marked and mended — and still beautiful.

There is a Japanese sewing technique, sashiko: a style of mending which, instead of trying to hide the damage to cloth, highlights it visibly with decorative stitching. It gloriously refuses to pretend away imperfections. That is a model for true courage in managing the distress of human dying. Weeping is not a weakness, any more than fear is a sin. We need not hide our grief. We, too, can weep.

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