Churchgoers today have another long gospel to stand through. The story of the healing of Lazarus in John (11:1-45) really needs to be sat down to appreciate its many rich layers. It describes the sudden death of a friend Jesus loved and his sharing in the grief of his two sisters, the active Martha and the contemplative Mary.
The story shows Jesus both at his most powerful and his most humanly vulnerable. He was gripped viscerally by the loss, deeper than words. We are told he gave a sigh that came straight from his heart. What can we say in the face of the disappearance of someone we love? We don’t know if they have evaporated into nothing or plunged into some deep level of reality that we are still too gross and unenlightened to penetrate. The feeling of being left behind evokes endless layers of pre-conscious memory. The wordless sigh expresses a pain of absence from which tears come. And we are told, in the shortest full verse in all the four gospels, that ‘Jesus wept.’
Some people include these potent two words in the repertoire of minor blasphemies that colour their speech when driving or mistakenly deleting an email. It might understandably be offensive to the pious, but it could also be seen as an invocation, however unconscious, of the empathy that Jesus has with suffering humanity. The tears of Jesus for Lazarus, we feel, arose not only from the personal anguish he felt at the loss of someone he loved but from his immersion in the whole ocean of human pain. When we hurt, we hurt with all those who are hurting or have ever hurt through both dimensions of time and space.
When Aeneas gazes at a mural depicting war scenes and the death of friends he is moved to say ‘There are tears in things and mortal things touch the mind.’ The tears of things. Our humanity is diminished if we cannot feel and honour them whenever and however we encounter suffering. Perhaps that is why we relish bad news, to make us feel that we can still feel even in the over-stimulated and distracted state of media culture.
This empathy or compassion form part of the deep news hidden in the ordinary, whether the breaking news feels good or bad. Tears are a wave of energy that brings healing and new life. After his descent into the silence of deep compassion Jesus ‘calls in a strong voice’:
‘Lazarus, here! Come out!’ The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with bands of stuff and a cloth round his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, let him go free.’
Tears prove our attention to be real. Sustained attention heals; regenerates what is dead; warms what is cold. And it puts colour back into what has turned a lifeless grey.