April 9, 2023
Seeing Through the Tears
Being a minister is one of those positions where one sees a lot of tears: tears of grief, tears of joy, tears of anger, and tears of frustration and regret. It is a part of the privilege and responsibility of being a minister. Tears are a very human phenomenon. If you haven’t felt a tear in the last couple of years, chances are you either have buried your emotions pretty deep or you’ve lived a remarkably charmed life.
The gospels tell us that Jesus wept on more than one occasion. He wept over Jerusalem and he wept with Mary and Martha over the death of their brother Lazarus. And here in our scripture today John tells of Mary Magdalene’s tears. Mary had been one of the women who followed Jesus, and even aided him in his ministry. There was a tradition that developed that she had been a prostitute, but modern scholarship says there is no evidence to support that idea. The gospels do tell us she had been healed of some ailment. We don’t know if she was old or young, and there is nothing to indicate she had any relationship with Jesus other than being a follower along with several other women, some of whom were relatives. Mary was one of those women standing near the cross when Jesus died supporting his grieving mother.
She was among those women who watched where they buried Jesus when Joseph of Arimathea took his body to put it in a grave just before the Sabbath was to begin.
And then, of course, on Easter morning she is the one all the gospels say came to anoint Jesus’ body. (Matthew Mark and Luke all say there were others there also, but John only mentions her.) She came in those early morning hours fully expecting to anoint a dead body now that the Sabbath was over as was the burial custom. She got to the tomb only to discover that the stone closure had already been moved away. She immediately assumed there has been some foul play and runs back to the house where the disciples are staying to tell Peter and perhaps, whoever else might be up at the early dawn hours.
When she gets there she blurts out to Peter and John that someone has broken into Jesus’ tomb and already moved his body. They all rush back to the tomb and John, who is probably the youngest, gets there first, and just stops and gasps at the open cave. Peter arrives next and just rushes in to find the burial cloths rolled up but no body. Peter and John then leave. They are assuming that, indeed, someone has taken the body.
Mary just stands outside crying. It’s another stab in the heart. Was it the authorities, she wonders? It means she will not be able to give Jesus the last rites, just one more indignity in this painful and bewildering last week. As the dawn lightens just a bit more she peers into the tomb. She sees two people dressed in white, who John tells us are “angels”. They ask her why she is crying. She tells them someone has stolen the body.
Her tears are so heavy and her suspicion so is so strong about what has happened that she cannot recognize or fathom that the voice she hears behind her is that of Jesus, she assumes it’s the cemetery caretaker. He also asks her why she is crying. She tells him. And then he calls her name. Only then does she recognize him. It’s a dramatic Easter story John tells.
It is not hard to understand how she doesn’t recognize him at first. The emotions of the last few days are overwhelming. I wonder if she’d even slept. The reality of standing with the other women and watching the brutality of the Roman execution was traumatizing. And when you are tired and your emotions are running high you often only see what you expect to see. The brain just fills in details you expect to anticipate to be there.
It happens to all of us sometimes, most famously with police officers sometimes. They think they see a gun, or someone going for a gun but in reality there was no gun. It takes a lot of training to overcome that tendency, to see beyond our expectations, especially in emotional situations.
Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus until he speaks to her a second time, calling her by name. It’s only then that the mystery of his Resurrection can take shape in her mind. Only then does it register in her grief-stricken mind. It is Jesus.
The other side of the equation is that it is often through our tears of struggle that we see most clearly. Tears may be the catharsis of emotional understanding and change. It is when we come to grips with something we did not want to see. Sometimes we are pulled by the force of events and the emotions involved to look at things differently. We have this capacity to avoid looking at the things we don’t want to see. And we sometimes won’t see them until we are brought up short, until facing them becomes our only option.
Therapy can often bring tears. When we break through the emotions that have been blocked up inside us, emotions we have been avoiding, trying not to see. When I was in seminary back in the mid 60’s Andover Newton required us to do a summer of clinical training. Besides doing a stint as a hospital orderly and then serving as a hospital chaplain we had to participate in a small group therapy sessions. The therapist who led our group at our first meeting looked at the eight of us mid-20 year old seminarians and said, “I know you clergy types I know what makes you tick and I am going to break you.” -It was intimidating. We sat in silence for an hour or so. None of us wanted to be the focus of his psychological unwrapping. Eventually of course we all talked, and were glad we did. All of us shared tears before the summer was over, and I’ll give you one guess who was the first one.
Like Mary, we don’t always want the tears we experience, but sometimes the grace of God is seen through tears. We are opened to things we had not been opened to before. We may see both ourselves, and God, in ways we had not seen before. Possibilities emerge in the misty-eyed moments that we had not been able, or willing to, see before. Sometimes it is only through tears that resurrection begins in us.
It was the great psychotherapist Carl Jung who first talked about the “Wounded Healer”, the one who’s own woundedness serves as a vehicle, not only for self-understanding, but for themselves to be used in the healing of others.
Mary’s tears certainly are the natural expression of pain and grief. In that pain something else is revealed, the goodness and grace that she knew in Jesus has not been terminated or extinguished by forces of empire. The jealousy, the greed, the quest for power, the cruelty that put Jesus on the cross has not negated the work of God that was in him. The force of God’s presence in the world has not been overcome. Or as John says, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
I think Jesus’ died on the cross not so much because God needed some payment for human sin but because humanity needed some clear way of seeing the horror of human brutality and the extent of God’s readiness to forgive and redirect us on a better path. If we are moved to tears on Good Friday, then our tears become a vehicle for understanding God’s Grace and hope for us, and the calling to live towards the kind of world Jesus called for and proclaimed as God’s true vision for humanity.
May the God of Easter inspire your tears with hope and blessing! –Amen.