In the King James version of the Bible in English, the verse John 11:35 (verse 35 in chapter 11 of the Gospel of St. John) is the shortest. It has just two words: “Jesus wept”.
The context here is the death of Lazarus of Bethany, follower of Jesus. Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, have sent word to Jesus that their brother is gravely ill, but Jesus arrives four days too late. Lazarus is dead and entombed. When He is taken to where Lazarus has been laid to rest and the manifest grief of his sister Mary and other mourners, Jesus weeps.
We know the rest, of course. Jesus raises Lazarus from the tomb, and those who were witness to this, believed in Him. But word of this miracle reaches the Pharisees and chief priests, who call a meeting of the Sanhedrin, and they plot to do away with Jesus.
Much significance has been given to Jesus weeping, as an emotional response to the grief of others. It demonstrates his humanness, in feeling and reacting as any of us would. Pope Leo I (400-461 AD), saint, theologian and Doctor of the Church, refers to this very passage in describing the two natures of Christ: “In His humanity, Jesus wept for Lazarus; in His divinity He raised him from the dead.”
This passage from the Bible has inspired many. William Billings (1746-1800), widely regarded as the first American choral composer, took this moment as the inspiration for a choral round, set to the following words: When Jesus wept, the falling tear/ In mercy flowed beyond all bound; / When Jesus groaned, a trembling fear/ Seized all the guilty world around.”
It is commonly sung in services for Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday. The Child’s Play adult community choir led by Nicholas Manlove will sing it at the choral concert “Bridge of Voices: Celebrating international collaboration and friendship” on Holy Wednesday, 23 March 2016 6.30 pm at Menezes Braganza hall, Panjim. The concert will also feature the Child’s Play children’s choir and a visiting choir from Sweden, the Sångföreningen Qöhr, in a programme of sacred and more eclectic music.
Billings’ setting of “When Jesus wept” is adapted into the central movement of a work by American composer William Schuman (1910-1992). “New England Triptych” is an orchestral composition subtitled “Three Pieces for Orchestra after William Billings” and draws inspiration from music and lyrics from three original works by Billings for its three movements: “Be Glad then, America”; “When Jesus Wept” and “Chester”.
French painter Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902), also known by his Anglicised name James Tissot, is famed for his scenes and characters from the Bible. He chose this episode of the weeping Jesus as one of only four in his series of paintings to illustrate “The Life of Christ”, on par with other moments such as the Baptism of Jesus and the Resurrection.
Curiously enough, in certain parts of the United Kingdom, “Jesus wept” is used as a form of exclamation, to express surprise or exasperation. I had a colleague from Manchester, a fellow doctor who would say this when things were not exactly going his way. And a cellist in my orchestra did this too. I’ve tried looking it up, to determine how this entered into common usage, but it seems to be one of those British oddities that perhaps make sense just to them.
The brevity of John 11:35 has also helped others in unexpected ways. The author Stephen King, in his book “On Writing” mentions how as a schoolboy he was required to memorise a verse from the Bible, and he deliberately chose “Jesus wept”.
After the 1995 Oklahoma bombing ( it is interesting how America is reluctant to use the word “terrorism” if a violent act is committed by one of their own, particularly white) that killed 168 people, a commemorative monument was erected three years later. It is a white stone statue of Jesus, with His head bowed, and His right hand over His face. The words “And Jesus wept” are engraved on the granite base.
An inscription explains: “In the Sacred Scriptures, Jesus is seen as weeping over Jerusalem, soon to be destroyed. He wept for those whose lives would be lost. In the shortest verse of the Bible, Jesus weeps over the death of his friend Lazarus. Here we depict that same Jesus weeping and turning away from the bombing destruction.”
One can only add to that, that the same Jesus would weep for the victims of bombings and killings all over the world today, in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and in the “Occupied Territories” in that part of the Middle East where He walked in His earthly life. He would remember how His family were refugees early in that life, and weep at the mass of refugees being turned away from borders by truncheon-wielding police. And He would weep at the plight of people suffering and persecuted everywhere, whether in India or beyond.
(An edited version of this article was published on 20 March 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)