Often we speak and think of Christ in an abstract manner “though Scripture has set Him before us in His actual sojourn on earth, in His gestures, words, and deeds, in order that we may have that on which to fix our eyes.” Until we contemplate His particular and actual works, we will fail to grasp all that the Scriptures convey. And there are few stories in the Gospels that are as compelling to us as Jesus weeping at the death of His friend, Lazarus.
In the Sermon, “Tears of Christ at the Grave of Lazarus,” Bl. John Henry Newman points to what might seem an apparent inconsistency in the Scriptures, but Newman invites us to pray for an increase in faith. Jesus weeping over Lazarus is the sublime example of those aspects of Christ which both puzzle and fascinate us.
We know this story from the Gospel of John. “Jesus said, Where have ye laid him? They said unto Him, Lord, come and see. Jesus wept. Then said the Jews, Behold how He loved him.” John xi. 34-36.
Jesus had heard that his friend was sick, yet he did not go to him until after he had died. He groaned at his death, yet he raised him to life. How do we comprehend these details? Newman gives us a principle which we would do well to keep in mind when reading difficult passages: “that to understand them we must feed upon them, and live in them, as if by little and little growing into their meaning.”
Because, “We know, indeed, there are insuperable mysteries involved in the union of His divine with His human attributes, which seem incompatible with each other; for instance, how He should be ever-blessed, and yet weep—all-knowing, yet apparently ignorant.”
After these observations Newman returns to the Lazarus story and asks: “What led our Lord to weep over the dead, who could at a word restore him, nay, had it in purpose so to do?”
First, Jesus shows the compassion of the Almighty God which otherwise we could not know.
“When (…) our Saviour weeps from sympathy at Mary’s tears, 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.
“Jesus wept, therefore, not merely from the deep thoughts of His understanding, but from spontaneous tenderness; from the gentleness and mercy, the encompassing loving-kindness and exuberant fostering affection of the Son of God for His own work, the race of man. Their tears touched Him at once, as their miseries had brought Him down from heaven. His ear was open to them, and the sound of weeping went at once to His heart.”
Next, Newman notes that Jesus was moved by the “tender complaint”: “Lord, if Thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. Such has been the judgment passed, or the doubt raised, concerning Him, in the breast of the creature in every age.” It is the sorrow of the Creator who had once looked at his handiwork and seen that it was “very good.”
It was the work of the enemy, and Jesus removes their complaints and doubts by raising Lazarus to life. But Lazarus would one day die again.
Furthermore, Newman compares Jesus’ weeping to that of a parent over an infant who is helpless, but then quickly reminds us that Jesus had the power to raise Lazarus and experienced a peculiar emotion. (“Is there any time more affecting than when you are about to break good news to a friend who has been stricken down by tidings of ill?”)
Lastly Newman compares Jesus’ act to Joseph in the Old Testament. Unlike the latter, who could help his brothers at no cost, Christ would bring life to the dead by His own death. The raising of Lazarus was the immediate cause for his seizure and death. Many thoughts must have crowded his mind …
“… (A)nd He knew that this reverse was altogether voluntary with Him. He had come down from His Father’s bosom to be an Atonement of blood for all sin, and thereby to raise all believers from the grave, as He was then about to raise Lazarus; and to raise them, not for a time, but for eternity; and now the sharp trial lay before Him, through which He was to “open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.”
Jesus then told Martha: “I am the Resurrection and the Life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me, shall never die.”
In this reflection by Newman, we are invited to have faith in the presence of Christ when we contemplate our death or that of a loved one.
“Blessed be his name! nothing can rob us of this consolation: we will be as certain, through His grace, that He is standing over us in love, as though we saw Him. We will not, after our experience of Lazarus’s history, doubt an instant that He is thoughtful about us. He knows the beginnings of our illness, though He keeps at a distance. He knows when to remain away and when to draw near.”
Therefore “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.”
As we see the course of God’s providence in our lives we must ask Him for an increase of faith, and be confident that He will never ask of us more that we can bear.