Jesus wept. The one who is the second person of God, a fully human and fully divine being, an omnipotent and omnipresent entity – the Son and Lamb – he wept. No passage of scripture is shorter, and perhaps none carries more emotion and power.
Today is All Saint’s Day. The feast of the saints is a memorial celebration that has existed since the 8th century. You can go back even further to find individual celebrations of saints and other remembrances of martyrs in the Catholic Church that date back as far as the 4th century. However, the singular remembrance on November 1 dates to Pope Gregory III in the mid-8th century. For almost 1300 years the Christian church has set aside this first day of November to look back and to remember the saints – those who have come before us and taught us, instructed us, guided us, and raised us in the faith. We remember the saints who gave their lives for religious liberties; we celebrate those who gave their lives for the opportunity we have to worship Christ so publically today; we memorialize and give thanks to those who showed us what it means to have faith and joy and hope in the promise of God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Over the past 1300 years, the celebration of All Saint’s has had many forms and formats. In Mexico, the all saints’ celebration kicks off the Dia de los Muertos – the Day of the Dead festivities. In Portugal, they celebrate with the Pão-por-Deus tradition, receiving cakes, candies, nuts and other treats. In the Philippines they celebrate Todos los Santos – meaning All the Saints – by visiting and cleaning the gravesites and repairing the tombstones of loved one past. They often stay at the graveside all day, sometimes all night, singing, praying, dining, and playing games with family.
In countries all over the world, too many to name, families remember the saints on this day by placing flowers on the graves of relatives. People light candles at gravesites and in worship to remember their loved ones. As we will celebrate today, another tradition is to read the names of church members and other loved ones who have died in the past year. We will also, as is one custom, ring a chime after each name is read.
All Saint’s Day is a time for remembrance. It is a time to reflect and give thanks for those who we name as saints.
But All Saint’s Day, the remembrance of loved ones who have died, is not first and foremost about the loved ones we remember. This is a day to remember that Jesus wept. Jesus’ weeping, his emotional response, gives us reason to move beyond our own tears to a celebration of rejoicing with one another even as we remember those who have gone before us.
Our scripture today tells us a story of the death of someone Jesus loved. Earlier in this chapter, verse 5 tells us, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister, [Mary,] and Lazarus.” Verse 3 says that when Lazarus became ill, the sisters sent for Jesus saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” It should not be mistaken that Jesus was just helping another person with a healing miracle. Lazarus is not like the blind man, or the lame man, or the leper – Jesus didn’t just happen to stumble upon Lazarus. Lazarus was one whom Jesus knew – he was one whom Jesus loved.
In verses 11-15, Jesus tells his disciples that he’s going to see Lazarus. He uses this play on words, saying Lazarus had fallen asleep. The disciples are thankful he’s only sleeping, for that means Lazarus is still alive and Jesus has a chance to heal him before he gets worse. Jesus had, however, been speaking of his death, and he says to the disciples, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I’m glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”
I always find the commentary between Jesus and his disciples convicting. It adds so much depth to our understanding of Jesus and how everything he does is done with such conviction and intentionality.
Before Jesus even embarks to go see Lazarus, he knows him to be dead. Remember, Jesus loved Lazarus – there is a close connection between Jesus and this family.
When Jesus arrives where it is Lazarus has died he is chastised by Mary. She was upset because she knew that had Jesus arrived sooner Lazarus would still be alive.
Remember, Jesus knew Lazarus was dead. He had already spoken of Lazarus’ death to the disciples. He knew even before he arrived. Yet, upon hearing Mary’s pain – upon witnessing Mary and the many others who were present and weeping for Lazarus’ death, the text tells us that Jesus was greatly disturbed. The Greek word used here to define Jesus’ disturbed state is embrimaomai. The root of this word is not just about being moved – it carries a weight of anger with it. Jesus’ disturbance, his being greatly moved, wasn’t just being overwhelmed with sadness. Jesus was angry.
When I found this greek word – found that in other places it’s used to define Jesus speaking sternly with frustration and anger in his voice – I wondered, what is Jesus angry at?
Is Jesus perhaps angry at the people around him for not having faith? Is he angry at their deep grief, witnessed in their weeping, because it is a sign they don’t believe Jesus can help? … While possible, John is a Gospel writer who doesn’t often miss the opportunity to call out the disciples and followers when their faith is lacking.[i] There is no retort from John or Jesus at this moment about the lacking faith of the people.
Perhaps Jesus is angry with himself for not coming sooner? There are a lot of signs that is too late to save Lazarus. We’re told there is a stench in the tomb for he’s been dead four days. We’re told there’s a rock in front of the tomb – it may be too heavy to be moved. Jesus sends no one in to bring Lazarus out – yet we know that Lazarus must be bound in burial cloths. This was a custom of the time. He would be bound very tightly in his cloths, unable to move himself. Yet, as we read, we find that none of these obstacles will stand in Jesus’ way of resurrecting Lazarus. He knew he had the power to resurrect Lazarus, surely his anger was not with himself for failing to show on time.
But Jesus is angered – deeply disturbed. A. K. M. Adam, a Biblical Scholar and Greek Professor at Oxford University, suggests that Jesus is angered not by anyone around him, nor is he angered by this specific event in time – but perhaps Jesus is angered at death in general.
Just think of what must be going through Jesus’ mind. He’s come to visit a family whom he loves very dearly. He’s come to the place where his great friend has been laid to rest. He looks around at all these people – friends, and others who clearly loved this man as much as he – and he sees in them all tears of hurt and pain. In this gathering, people are shedding tears of agony for the lost life of Lazarus.
And there is Jesus, standing in the midst of this crowd, and he’s angered and deeply hurt – but not at the death of Lazarus. He knew Lazarus was dead. He intentionally came late to ensure he arrived after Lazarus would be dead. Jesus’ pain is this moment is driven not by the loss of a singular life in his great friend Lazarus. Jesus’ pain is connected to his eternal understanding of life, and he is angered not by this one death, but by the victory of Satan to bring sin and death into the world at all. In this moment of intense emotional and physical inner wrestling, Jesus himself begins to cry because of the pain of all of humanity experienced in the losses we experience due to the sin and death.
The weight of Lazarus’ death, compounded by the hurt and pain of those present around him, all piled on top of the centuries of death and loss that had been experienced and would further be experienced in the ongoing of time closed in around Jesus in that moment. And like any human who is overcome by the pain and hurt caused in death, Jesus wept.
Jesus knew that in that crowd, the people believed death had won. Jesus knew that in the midst of the pain and the agony people were experiencing, that they had given up hope. Jesus knew that in the mourning crowd, in this space where people had come to pay their last respects to a man beloved by the Son of God, that they had no belief that Lazarus would ever live again.
And in that pain, in that moment and feeling of being greatly agitated and motivated, Jesus goes to the tomb of Lazarus. Having arrived at the tomb, Jesus ordered to stone removed. Martha, the sister of the deceased, questions Jesus’ actions. And Jesus’ love and anger comes rolling out, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Jesus turns to the sky and gives thanks to the Father, and then exclaims and invites Lazarus to walk out of the tomb.
Jesus wept – not because of the loss of life for one man whom he loved dearly – Jesus wept for the loss of life sensed around the room in those who did not understand the glory of God. Jesus wept because people did not understand that God is not just the victor in the end over death – but that God is the victor over death even here and now. Jesus wept because he sensed that people were not celebrating an invitation to eternal life with God, they were mourning as if there was no future to be had.
On All Saint’s Day, while we remember and celebrate the life of those who we have lost, our tears should not flow out of the sorrow for the loss of life – but they should be tears of joy that celebrate the good work of God in Jesus Christ. Our tears and our celebration should be built upon the gospel truth that reigns true this and every day. “We have our hope not on things of this earth but in the power of the cross of Christ and the resurrection of those who are children of God.”[ii]
May our celebration and remembrance this day not grieve our God, but may we echo the resounding chorus of the saints as they sing along with Christ who claims to us and to all, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” May you live not just in the hope of an eternal future, but may your life eternally with Christ begin here and now as we celebrate today the tears of Christ and the saints who have taught us how those tears are tears of love. Real tears of a real man, offered in love for you.