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The gift of tears
Can you believe what a great new Holy Father we have? He’s a humble guy who used to ride the bus to his job as a cardinal archbishop. He turned down the papal apartment and instead opted to live in the Roman equivalent of the Marriott Extended Stay Hotel so that he can live in community. And he celebrates Mass there every morning, giving pithy, insightful, down-to-earth little homilies full of practical advice for those in attendance — and for the rest of us all over the world.
Yes, I like him a lot.
I particularly liked his homily a few weeks ago in which he said, "Sometimes in our life, tears are the glasses to see Jesus." He actually preached about crying. A pope can’t get much more down-to-earth than that.
I think it’s a message that a lot of us need to hear.
Crying is kind of fascinating, actually. It’s an involuntary (or at least largely involuntary) response. Speaking as a woman, it tends to happen when we least want it to, which is unfortunate, because it doesn’t create a particularly flattering look. It scrunches up our faces and obliterates any facade of strength we may have maintained. It reveals our weakness and our vulnerability. Crying is embarrassing. We tend to want to avoid it. We figure if we just “stay positive” or “trust God,” maybe we can minimize it or avoid it entirely — or at least hide it away in private where no one else can see it.
And yet, Scripture tells us, in the Bible’s shortest passage, that “Jesus wept” (Jn 11:15).
So we aren’t alone in that, either.
It is particularly puzzling to meditate on why Jesus wept. It was at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. We can, of course, all relate to grief at a friend’s death. But there were a few crucial differences here: First of all, Jesus was (and is) God. He loves all of us. Why would He weep at just this one death, when death happens all over the world every day? Second and far more puzzling: Jesus knew that Lazarus wasn’t going to stay dead. In fact, He was planning to raise him from the dead in mere moments. So what on earth was there to cry about?
We are told that Jesus was “deeply moved” when he saw Lazarus’ sister weeping at the tomb. It was her tears that prompted His tears. He knew Lazarus would rise from the dead. But nevertheless, his sister was in pain at that moment, and Jesus felt that pain with her. His tears were tears of compassion, which means “to suffer with.” Jesus, in that moment, was suffering with Lazarus’ sister Mary.
To me, that is powerful on so many levels. It shows the compassion Jesus has for us. Compassion — to suffer with. Jesus, who knows firsthand the very human pain of losing a loved one, is moved by our suffering. He comes to us. He cries with us.
Second, it makes sense of our own compassion. When 13 innocents were violently slaughtered in a high school in my own neighborhood, it affected me much more profoundly than any news reports of atrocities in far-away countries ever have — even though those atrocities may have been objectively far worse in terms of loss of life. We react more emotionally when the loss hits closer to home. It’s human nature. Jesus, weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, tells me that’s normal.
Of course, sometimes weeping gets excessive. I have a multiethnic background that has led me to some tightly controlled funerals and to others where the older ladies seemed almost ready to fling themselves atop the caskets as they descended into the ground. But honestly, I figure it’s not up to me to judge someone else’s pain. In my own life I sometimes cry when I can find no discernible reason for the tears. I just know that, whenever they do come, the best remedy is to bring them to God and invite Him into whatever pain there may be. The fastest way out of an emotion is through it, and the best way to go through it is with Him.
Scripture tells us that the Lord is “close to the brokenhearted, and saves those crushed in spirit” (Ps 34:18). I believe that. I also believe, as He tells us in the beatitudes, that He is particularly close to those who weep. I have heard it said that tears “soften our hearts.” We’re vulnerable when we cry. We feel weak, powerless. All traits that make us more open to Him and to His action in our lives.
Pope Francis, in his homily, referred to “that gift of tears that prepare the eyes to look, to see the Lord.” Weeping, he said, “prepares us to see Jesus.”
Maybe we should embrace those tears.
Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We’re On a Mission from God and Real Love.