“Why Are You Crying?
(I spoke of sentimentalism last week, of emotion too easily manipulated and indulged. But not for a moment did I mean to suggest that strong, rational people never cry….so here is a followup sermon). Any mother, and sometimes a father, can tell you that one of the most poignant moments in family life comes when a young child sees deep grief for the first time and is troubled by the mystery of tears on a grown-up face. Innocent eyes are suddenly confused, a hesitant finger reaches up to trace a tear’s journey on the cheek, and the puzzled question comes: “Why are you crying?” Most of us, no matter how great our pain, try to stop our tears abruptly at that question, unwilling that we should be the first to introduce our child to the tragic sense of life. We brush the back of our hand across our cheek, gather the child up close, and say: “I’m fine, it’s all right, let’s go outside and play.” But the weather of one small life has changed. A cloud has made a brief shadow in eyes that were cloudless before, and though it has to happen some-time we wish we had not been the one to cause it first.
Life itself is always a proper text for a pulpit — Christ proved that in his sermons about wineskins and weddings, lost sheep and good Samaritans — so my question from a child is reason enough for a sermon, but it also happens to be a question Christ himself asked one day. A woman named Mary stands before an empty tomb, weeping, and his words to her are candid, direct, almost childlike in their unadorned smplicity: “Why are you crying?” And because they are so simple they make us feel much closer to him than we do when we read a deliberately elegant translation like the King James , where he is made to as the question this way: “Woman, why weepest thou?” The archaic “est” verb ending and the archaic pronoun form both reflect 16th century English, not the first century Aramaic which Jesus used, and not the modern English we use, and so the J. B. Phillips translation is much, much better: “Why are you crying?”
I am not concerned with the rest of that incident, either with her answer or his response to it. I want the question to stand by itself, because our reaction to it can be revealing. It’s not just the child’s question, looking at her father’s tears after the devastating phone call, or at her mother’s after a family quarrel. and it’s not just that single, remote question from Christ, so long ago, to a bewildered woman outside a tomb. It is our question. What makes US cry? And how do we reconcile our feelings at such a time with that beatitude which so srangely says, “Blessed are they that mourn”?
Let’s stop there for a moment — on the sharp edge of that paradox. Clever ads tell us to play hard and be happy, to spend the weekend with Michelob and the winter on a cruise. And here is Christ saying, in his odd list of upside-downisms that there can be a blessing in grief. How does he mean it, this apparently foolish denial of the wisdom of the world. He must not mean it in some calloused way, because he is tender and compassionate when he asks Mary why she weeps. We can’t believe that he saw grief in itself as a blessing. It disfigures the face, upsets the children, and if it hangs on too long it distorts the whole personality. So what did he mean? What kind of weeping brings a blessing? I have tried to find my own translation of what he meant: “Blessed are those who accept inevitable sorrow with a resolution to learn from it.”
The word “blessed,” by the way, stands for an Aramaic plhrase which is an exclamation, not a promise. Christ is not offering rewards. He is simply stating facts, congratulating us for something for which the world usually pities us. No one we wish to know would enter the house of sudden sorrow to say, “Remember, there can be a blessing in your tears.” It’s not the time, and our impulse would be to throw him out. But in a public sermon this strange and radical man says it — and makes us wonder again if he knows a secret we had rather not think about.
And then, as happens so often, life proves him to be right. We discover that there is wisdom that comes only through sorrow, that there is an experience of community and of kinship that comes only through loss. Jesus does not say, “Go bare your body to the spear so that you can be rewarded.” He simply says, “When that happens, remember that the spear may be tipped with life rather than with poison.”
But philosophy in a vacuum is not particularly convincing, so what happens when we apply the words of Christ to some tragic event still relatively close to us? Jim Brady, President Reagan’s press secretary, would never, never have chosen to be critically wounded. But one of the paradoxes we live with is that even from that terrible moment blessings come — if the channel for them is kept open. Life takes on new dimensions as Jim Brady reflects on how much love and concern came to him from the whole country, on how fragile and precious life is, on the love and strength of a woman who almost willed him back to life by the power of her affection, and on the conviction that lives have been saved by the bill that bears his name.
We may not like it, that some discoveries and blessings demand so high a price, and we may wish for all wisdom to come only by pleasant highways, but it doesn’t. And Christ, who did not make things to be the way they are, but only faced them and looked deep for hidden treasure, said, “Happy are those who weep.” Not all tears, of course, carry a blessing. We cry sometimes when there is no good reason from which a blessing can come. So the question, “Why are you crying?” can be a rebuke. We have all known people who turn tears on and off like faucets, who manufacture tears, either to get something or simply to enjoy the pleasure of playing on the tragic stage before an audience.
I even knew a young man once who turned tears on deliberately for effect from a pulpit. He was my friend when we both were just starting to speak in churches, still in our late teens, and he would come to my house late on Saturday nights to have me type his handwritten notes. I would come to a place where he had written, “Cry here,” and I would stop to ask, “How do you do that? Can you just turn on tears when you thnk they might impress people?” And he said, “Yes….I can do that.” I’m no longer as naive about that ability as I was then. I have seen it often since, especially in certain television evangelists who weep at the drop of a hat to melt the heart and open the wallet.
But there are plenty of good reasons for tears. And although we are sometimes told that what we like reveals a lot about us, it may be that the things that make us cry reveal even more. I was reading a biography of the American novelist Theodore Dreiser once, and although I have forgotten most of it by now I still remember how he once sat across the street from an orphanage, watching children go in and out, and was moved to tears by his compassion for them. It was a sign of strength, not of weakness. I happen to believe absolutely what an American philosopher, George Santayana, said once — words that have even more meaning in these troubled times of street gangs: “The young man who has not wept is a savage.” It may seem odd to say that tears are civilizing, but it’s true. And while we consider that, we mght remember that the New Testament would long ago have been a forgotten book if there had not been a cross in it, and tears at the heart of it.
Dismiss now the selfish tears which are only a way of magnifying life’s small vexations, and think for a moment of the things that are worth weeping about. Remember the Apostle Peter as Luke describes him on that last night in the life of Christ. Just a few hours earlier he had sworn that he would go through suffering and death to be with his Lord, but the fearful hour came, and he buckled and lied out of sheer fright — and then he happened to look straight into the eyes of the man he had ‘just denied. He went away then, Luke says, and wept bitterly. To have betrayed a friend…..that is worth weeping about.
Or the tears Mary herself, who cries in our text, had shed once before when she knelt at the feet of Christ in the house of a Pharisaee. A woman of such bad reputation that the disciples were embarrassed to have her in the same room, but she had recognized in the young rabbi the sensitivity her own heart had craved through a long parade of other men who had loved only themselves while they were using her — and so, impulsively, she knelt to kiss his feet, grew flustered because tears fell against her will, and then with nothing else at hand, tried awkwardly to wipe them away with her hair. The moment of knowing what he was, and the moment of seeing, perhaps for the first time in her life, what the highest kind of love was like — that was worth the embarrassment of public tears.
And there is Christ himself, who wept twice in the brief records we are given of his life. Once when his friend Lazarus died, and there came over him a sense of the crowding sadness there is in life: always so many hearts broken or breaking, always so much suffering, pain and loss. A very shy and reserved Englishman confessed an odd thing about himself once, hoping some would understand: “I was alone the other day,” he said, “and there came such a sense of the mystery, the uncertainty, the loneliness, the pathos of life, that I was for a time shaken with sobs which I was unable to control.” I think Christ felt that when he shared with Mary and Martha the loss of their brother.
And the other time was on Palm Sunday, the day we celebrate next month, when the triumphal procession of Jesus and his friends came around a bend on the road to Jerusalem, and the white walls of the great temple flashed suddenly before them in the morning light. Christ loved that city and its people, but he knew that in their rabid nationalism they were headed toward one of the most terrible tragedies in human history, when the Romans would massacre them in horrible ways and tear down their beloved temple, stone by stone. If you happened to see the documentary about the fortress Masada and the slaughter of a desperate band of Jews who made their last stand on that huge rock, you saw a recreation of the history Christ knew was coming for his people. He becomes more real if we see him for a moment this morning, catching his first glimpse of the Holy City on his final journey, and crying out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, if only you understood the things that would bring you peace…..but they are hidden from your eyes.” And so, Luke writes, when he was come near the city, he wept over it.
So once for a heartbroken family, and once for his country, Jesus shed tears, but so far as we know, never for himself. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, during the slaughter of innocent children in the factories and mines of industrial England, wrote a poem with a question: “Do you hear the children weeping, O my brothers?” Well, most of the “brothers” didn’t. They heard other things: a threat to their privilege and their profits as people with hearts began to object to what they were doing. They heard the clink of coins on the counters, but not the crying of children who went to work in their plants before sunrise, came out after dark, and never had a childhood. There are certain union demands that I know would drive me crazy if I were in business, and government bureaucracy that often makes little sense, but I hope I would also remember that it was those two entities that moved us from 11 to 8-hour work days and mandated a more decent world for children.
But you know, of course, that some people could have been moved to tears by Mrs. Browning’s question, “Do you hear the children weeping?” and still have done absolutely nothing to change things. Sorrow is often an experience of emotional egotism. It wrings out a tear, but nothing happens as a result. One day in the Academy of Music in Philadelphia the great Marian Anderson sang a Negro spiritual — a song of deep brooding heartache born of the immemorial sorrow of her black people — and through the hall there was hardly an eye not wet with tears when she finished. But beyond the pathos of the moment, with those rather pleasant tears shed safely in an elegant setting and with dinner waiting when they got back home, how many cared enough to do a single thing to right the wrongs she sang about? Perhaps none…..and the question, “Why are you crying?” is answered — as it so often can be — “Because I like it, and it costs me nothing.”
When Christ said, “Happy are those who grieve,” he did not have in mind those for whom tears are only a safe emotional luxury. He was not like some of those young and radiant gods of Greek myth who looked down upon mortals from thesafety of Mount Olympus and on occasion shed a tear of sympathy. This particular one of mankind’s many gods walked among us, broke down and cried as we do, and died finally in pain and perplexity on a cross — and it was this man, sharing our sorrows, who was convinced that there can be a blessing even in tears.
Tonight, next week, a year from now…..it may help one of us to remember that.
We will not be so dishonest, Eternal God, as to say that we
welcome sorrow, but when it comes help us believe that we
may find in it, through your grace, a gift we could not have
imagined…..through Christ our Lord. Amen.