by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
“Jesus wept.” This simple phrase stops me in my tracks each and every time I read it.
I firmly believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human – as the Church teaches – so why do I find it so unsettling when John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus wept? It does not trouble me at all to know that Jesus experienced hunger and thirst. In fact, it is Jesus’ thirst that brought Him to Jacob’s well, where He encountered the Samaritan woman.
It doesn’t disturb me to know that Jesus slept, taking a snooze on a cushion in the stern of the disciples’ boat on the storm-tossed Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:35-41). It doesn’t even bother me to know that Jesus lost His temper, causing a major ruckus in the Temple when He overturned the moneychangers’ tables and drove the sellers of sheep and oxen and doves out with the improvised whip He had fashioned out of cords (John 2:14-16). He had every reason to be upset! So why does it bother me so much that Jesus wept?
Perhaps it’s because I occasionally suffer from a mild case of Docetism, and I suspect I am not alone in falling prey to that ancient and stubborn affliction among Christians. Docetism, in case you didn’t already know, isn’t the sort of malady that should have you rushing to the doctor – unless perhaps it’s to a doctor of theology. It is instead the erroneous belief that the humanity of Jesus isn’t really real, that Jesus can only be considered fully divine and that this fullness of divinity somehow keeps Him from being authentically human.
Struggled with Identity
The problem of Docetism poses far more of a challenge for 21st-century Christians than it ever did for Jesus’ first followers. For them, His humanity was obvious. Yet, they struggled to figure out just who He was and what that meant. When He asked them, “Who do people say that I am?,” they replied “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” He pressed them further, asking point-blank, “But who do you say that I am?” Then Peter blurted out: “You are the Messiah” with precious little idea of just what Jesus’ identity as God’s Anointed One implied. He proved as much when he rebuked Jesus for announcing His impending passion, death and resurrection, a misstep that earned Peter some stern words (See Mark 8:27-33). What seems so obvious to us today – Jesus’ divinity – wasn’t at all clear even to Jesus’ closest companions!
Could that be because John’s Gospel has accomplished its purpose a little too well? The evangelist brings chapter 20 to a close with a disclaimer, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [his] disciples that are not written in this book” (John 20:30). But he hastens to explain the selectivity of his editorial policy: “But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
In a series of carefully crafted narratives, John’s Gospel leads readers into a deeper understanding of Jesus’ identity and life-giving mission. From the wedding at Cana where water becomes the finest wine, to the healing of the man at the pool of Bethesda, the feeding of the multitude and the healing of the man blind from birth, John’s Gospel invites us to savor the glorious Good News of God’s own Word made flesh and dwelling among us.
This week’s reading from John’s Gospel is the culmination of the signs, and it begins with Jesus setting the stage for what is to follow. On learning that Lazarus had fallen ill, Jesus announced, with 20-20 foresight, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” We are told that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” This is the first time in John’s Gospel that we learn of His friends from Bethany. The two sisters, Martha and Mary, are familiar to us from Luke’s Gospel, where Martha welcomes Jesus into their home and then complains when Mary gets quality time with Jesus while she is busy with the details of hospitality (Luke 10:38-41).
Given what we are told about Jesus’ relationship with these friends, it is puzzling – even disturbing – to learn that on receiving the news of Lazarus’ illness, Jesus “remained for two days in the place where he was” instead of hurrying to his bedside. After two days, Jesus decided to make His way to Judea. He did so despite the objections of the disciples, who were justifiably concerned for His safety and their own: “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” Yet, typically enough for them (and for us!), the disciples didn’t get it. So Jesus had to speak plainly: “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.”
When they arrived in Bethany, Jesus wept, moved by Mary’s own tears to the point of becoming “perturbed and deeply troubled.” Making His way to His friend’s tomb, the Word made Flesh spoke first in prayer and then called Lazarus back to life from death’s unyielding grip.
Love conquers all, said the Roman poet Virgil. The inspired poetry of the Song of Songs tells us that love alone is strong as death, and the first letter of John tells us that God is love. It is love – fully human and fully divine – that brought Jesus to tears. It is love in the person of Jesus, who is fully human and fully divine, that brought Lazarus to life.[hr]
Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent
Ezekiel 37: 12-14
Psalm 130: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
Romans 8: 8-11
John 11: 1-45 or John 11: 3-7, 20-27, 33b-45[hr]
Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.