If we ever wonder whether God knows us and cares for us, the sentence from the Gospel of John, “Jesus wept,” should reassure us. In fact, the Gospels work like an antidote to the feeling that we are alone and God is far off. While we should remember God is near, close as we are to His nativity, we need to see Him with us, speaking and walking and crying – yes, crying as we do – as fragile and feeble as we are. St. John Henry Newman certainly met our Lord in this way, for his sermons are full of the simple and sincere questions of one for whom God was not a concept, but the Great Lover he wanted to know more deeply. In “Tears of Christ at the Grave of Lazarus,” Newman asks innocently, “… why [sic] did our Lord weep at the grave of Lazarus?”
On the plain reading of this passage, it certainly seems strange to see Jesus weeping, knowing as we do that He will soon raise Lazarus from the dead. This and many other instances of Jesus’ behavior in the Gospels rightly puzzle us. It is hard to understand Him, Newman says, and cautions us on how to approach Him: “I wish to impress upon you, that our Saviour’s words are not of a nature to be heard once and no more, but that to understand them we must feed upon them, and live in them, as if by little and little growing into their meaning.” Feed, live and grow. These words of Newman are the kind of material actions required to know the God Who walked into time and on the earth.
It is the “fashion at present,” Newman says, to see Christ “as a mere idea or a vision” – how fiercely the Gospels assault this fashion! “And till we learn to do this, to leave off vague statements about His love … and view Him in His particular and actual works, set before us in Scripture, surely we have not derived from the Gospels that very benefit which they are intended to convey. Nay, we are in some danger, perhaps, even as regards our faith; for, it is to be feared, while the thought of Christ is but a creation of our minds, it may gradually be changed or fade away, it may become defective or perverted.” Without denying the notional knowledge of God, Newman insisted on what he called a real or personal knowledge of God.
Troubled as we may be by this passage, there are some good reasons for Jesus’ tears at the grave of Lazarus. For one, Newman says, our Lord cried out of compassion for Mary, Martha and all who loved their brother. This is not simple human sympathy on the part of Jesus – “let us not say it is the love of a man overcome by natural feeling. It is the love of God, the bowels of compassion of the Almighty and Eternal, condescending to show it as we are capable of receiving it, in the form of human nature.”
For another reason, our Lord wept because He pitied His creation. “Here was the Creator of the world at a scene of death, seeing the issue of His gracious handiwork.” How gloriously conceived a creation, and yet how corrupted it had become! God, in Christ Jesus, wept with tender compassion for His children and at the evil that had invaded the life He designed for them.
Finally, our Lord wept because He saw in the death of Lazarus His own impending death, which was the price of the miracle He wrought. He knew “ … that He was descending into the grave which Lazarus left. He felt that Lazarus was to live and He to die; the appearance of things was to be reversed; the feast was to be kept in Martha’s house, but the last passover of sorrow remained for Him.”
As we think of this peculiar passage, we think of Him Who is so great that He condescends to us who are little more than nothing. He enters into our lives so deeply that He identifies with us in our sorrow. But we should not stop at this passage. It should set us on the path of approaching Christ in the Scriptures in the concrete and personal way St. Newman models for us, and enjoins us: “ … when we contemplate Christ as manifested in the Gospels, the Christ who exists therein, external to our own imaginings, and who is as really a living being, and sojourned on earth as truly as any of us, then we shall at length believe in Him with a conviction, a confidence, and an entireness, which can no more be annihilated than the belief in our senses.”
Hear Him in all the Scriptures calling to you – yes, you – and answer Him, “Here I am.”