Jesus Wept: The Role of Mourning in the Christian Life

User's Guide to Sunday, March 29

Jesus Wept by James Tissot
Jesus Wept by James Tissot (photo: Public domain)

Sunday, March 29, is the Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A). Mass readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130:1-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

And Jesus wept.  These three words have the distinction of comprising the shortest verse in the entire Bible. Nonetheless, they convey a great deal about our Lord Jesus Christ, particularly in regard to his human nature. Perhaps more than any other verse in the Bible, John 11:35 indicates the authenticity of Our Lord’s emotional life.

Jesus Christ grew to love Lazarus deeply, experiencing the kind of healthy attachment of which human beings are capable when they form authentic friendships. As a result, he also came to experience genuine sorrow upon learning of Lazarus’s death, which ultimately found somatic expression in his tears.

It is noteworthy that Christ’s weeping is something of a climactic response to, and participation in, the sorrow of others. As the Evangelist John points out, Jesus is confronted with the intense sorrow of Mary and her companions when she comes to him outside the town and falls down at his feet. Both her and those with her weep loudly in his presence, and as a result Christ became perturbed and deeply troubled (John 11:33). Now, the first word of this phrase in the Greek (enebrimēsato) is arrestingly vivid — when used of animals, it usually means “snort” or “bellow,” i.e., an audible sound that results from intense agitation.

Thus, if we were to translate John more literally, we might that Jesus snorted or bellowed in his spirit (tô pneumati). In other words, Christ is so deeply moved by Mary’s weeping that his very spirit groans in sympathy with her suffering. John reinforces this point by telling us that Christ was also deeply troubled (etaraxen).  This was no passing or ephemeral share in the suffering of others; rather, it was a state of inner turmoil that mirrored what Mary felt and would eventually lead to his shedding tears.

These details of Christ’s experience of sorrow are important for us to consider if we are to grow in our knowledge and appreciation of Our Lord’s humanity.  This is precisely what the Church has done for centuries — countless Church Fathers and theologians have poured over these verses in order to illuminate better the mystery of the Incarnation. Perhaps the most succinct and powerful articulation of this mystery came to expression at the Council of Chalcedon in 451: “The same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, [is] at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood.” Thus, although John 11:33 and 35 only provide a rather brief description of Christ’s emotional response to the death of a friend, they have been foundational to the Church’s understanding of Christ’s human nature.   

Finally, it is worthwhile to consider the instruction that this episode from the life of Our Lord provides regarding the legitimate role of mourning in the Christian life. In these verses, Christ demonstrates to us that even though we might fully believe in the reality of the resurrection, such emotional expression of sorrow at the death of a friend or family member is a fitting and appropriate display of love for them.

Dominican Father Jordan Schmidt is an instructor

 in sacred Scripture at the

Pontifical Faculty of the

 Immaculate Conception at the

Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.