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April 11, 2020

The Didactic Nature of Jesus Weeping According to Basil the Great and John Chrysostom

By St. Basil the Great

Now, as for the fact that the Lord wept over Lazarus and the city, we have this to say: He ate and drank, not because He needed these things Himself, but so as to leave you with measures and limits by which to control the unavoidable emotions of the soul. Thus, He wept in order to correct the propensity to excessive emotion and dejection among those given to mourning and lamentation. For if there is anything that needs to be moderated by reason, it is weeping: that is, over what things, to what extent, when, and how it is proper to weep. For that the Lord's weeping was not emotional, but didactic, is clear from this verse: "Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep" (John 11:11). Who among us mourns for a sleeping friend, whom he expects to awake after a short while? "Lazarus, come forth" (John 11:43). And the dead man was brought back to life; he who was bound walked. This is a miracle within a miracle: that his feet were bound with grave-clothes and yet were not prevented from moving. That which strengthened him was greater than that which impeded him.

Why, therefore, did the Lord, Who was about to accomplish such things, judge the incident worthy of tears? Is it not clear that, disregarding our infirmity in every way, He contained the necessary emotions within certain measures and limits, avoiding a lack of sympathy, on the one hand, as something appropriate to wild beasts, and, on the other hand, refusing to give way to excessive grief and lamentation as something ignoble? Hence, in weeping over His friend, He both displayed that He Himself shared in our human nature, and freed us from either kind of extreme, allowing us neither to indulge our emotions nor to be unfeeling in the face of sorrows.

Therefore, just as the Lord accepted hunger, after digesting solid food, submitted to thirst, after the moisture in His body was consumed, and felt weary, when His muscles and nerves were strained from travel-ling—although it was not that His Divinity succumbed to weariness, but that His body accepted its natural attributes; so also, He accepted weeping, permitting a natural property of the flesh to supervene. This occurs when the hollow parts of the brain, filled with vapors arising from grief, discharge the burden of moisture through the opening of the eyes as through some kind of duct. Hence, one experiences a certain ringing in the ears, dizziness, and darkening of the eyes when he hears about unexpected sorrows, and ones head is set in a whirl by vapors which are emitted by compressed heat deep inside him. Then, in my opinion, just as a cloud dissolves into raindrops, so also the thickness of vapors dissolves into tears. Hence, those who grieve feel a certain pleasure when they lament, because the burden that weighs on them is secretly evacuated through weeping. Experience of events proves the truth of this account. For we know many people who, in desperate straits, forcibly restrain themselves from weeping; then, in some cases, they fall into incurable sufferings, either apoplexy or paralysis, while in other cases, they completely faint, their strength having been broken down, like a weak support, by the weight of sorrow. For, what is observable in the case of fire, that it is stifled by its own smoke if it does not escape, but rolls around it—this, it is said, occurs also in the case of the faculty that governs a living creature; that is, it wastes away and is extinguished if there is no way for it to exhale.

Therefore, let those who are given to mourning not adduce the Lords tears in support of their own weakness. For, just as the food which the Lord ate is not an occasion of pleasure for us, but, on the contrary, the highest criterion of restraint and sufficiency, so also, His weeping is not an ordinance prescribing lamentation, but is a most fitting measure and an exact standard whereby we may, with proper dignity and decorum, endure sorrows while remaining within the limits of our nature. Thus, neither women nor men are permitted to indulge in mourning and excessive weeping, but only to the extent that it is fitting to grieve over sorrows; they are permitted to shed a few tears, but this must be done calmly, without bellowing or wailing, without rending ones tunic or sprinkling oneself with dust, or committing any of the other improprieties that are typical of those who are ignorant of heavenly things. For one who has been purified by Divine doctrine must be fenced around by right reason, as by a strong wall, and must manfully and strenuously ward off the onslaughts of such emotions; he must not accept any crowd of emotions that flows in, as it were, to some low-lying place, with a submissive and compliant soul.

It is the mark of a craven soul, and one that is lacking in the vigor that comes from hope in God, that it utterly collapses and succumbs to adversities. For, just as worms are particularly inclined to breed on more tender pieces of wood, so also sorrows grow in men of lesser moral fiber. Was not Job adamantine in heart? Were his inward parts not made of stone? His ten children fell dead in one brief moment of time, overwhelmed by a calamity in the house of their gladness at a time of enjoyment, when the Devil brought down their dwelling upon them. He saw the table drenched with blood; he saw his children, who had been born at different times, but who had ended their lives together. He did not wail aloud; he did not pluck his hair out; he did not let out a degenerate cry; but he uttered that thanksgiving which is renowned and acclaimed by all: the Lord gave, the Lord hath taken away; as it seemed good to the Lord, so hath it come to pass; blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21). Was this man not lacking in sympathy? How could this be so? For about himself, at any rate, he says: "I wept over every man who was afflicted" (Job 30:25). But was he not lying when he said this? But here, too, the truth bears witness to him that, in addition to his other virtues, he was also truthful: "...That man was blameless, righteous, godly, and truthful" (Job 1:1).

Yet many of you keep on wailing in dirges that are designed to express dejection, and you deliberately waste away your soul with mournful melodies; and, just like the make-believe and paraphernalia with which they adorn theatres to typify tragedies, so, also, you suppose that the proper outfit for a mourner consists of black clothing, squalid hair, dirt, and dust, complete with a darkened house and lugubrious chanting, which preserves the wound of grief ever fresh in the soul. Let those who have no hope do these things. You, however, have been taught, concerning those who repose in Christ, that it [the body] "is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption; it is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body" (I Corinthians 15:42-44). Why, then, do you weep for one who has gone to change his vesture? Neither mourn for yourself, as one who has been deprived of a helper in this life; for "it is better to trust in the Lord than to trust in man" (Psalm 117:8-9, Septuagint). Nor lament for this helper, as one who has suffered a terrible calamity. For, a little later, the trumpet sounding from Heaven will awaken him, and you will see him standing before the judgment-seat of Christ. So, dismiss these dejected and ignorant cries: Alas, these unexpected woes! Who would have thought that this would happen? Could I have ever anticipated that I would cover this dearest friend of mine with earth? If we should hear someone else saying such things, it behooves us to blush, since we have been taught from both past memories and present experience that these natural occurrences are inevitable.

Therefore, neither untimely deaths nor other misfortunes that unexpectedly befall us will ever cause consternation in us who have been educated by the doctrine of piety. For example, let us say that I had a son who was a young man—the sole heir of my estate, the comfort of my old age, the adornment of his family, the flower of his peers, the support of his household, and at that time of life which is most charming—, this lad having been carried off by death, he becoming earth and dust who, a short while ago, uttered sweet sounds and was a most pleasing sight in the eyes of his father. What, then, am I to do? Shall I rend my clothing? Shall I consent to roll around on the ground, scream in vexation, and act in front of those present like a child crying out in pain and having convulsions? Rather, paying heed to the inevitability of events, that the law of death is inexorable and affects every age-group alike, dissolving all compound things in order, surely I should not be surprised at what has happened. Surely I should not be upset in my mind, as if I had been devastated by some unexpected blow, since I have been taught beforehand that, being mortal, I had a mortal son, that there is no constancy in human affairs, and that nothing wholly abides for those who possess it.

Why, even great cities, which were renowned for the elegance of their buildings and the abilities of their inhabitants, and conspicuous for their prosperity both in the countryside and in the marketplace, now display tokens of their erstwhile dignity only in ruins. A ship which has frequently been preserved from the sea, and which has made countless speedy voyages and conveyed innumerable amounts of merchandise for traders, vanishes with a single gust of wind. Armies which have many times defeated their foes in battle have, on suffering a reversal of fortune, become a pitiful sight and one pitiful to relate. Entire nations and islands, which have attained great power, and have raised many trophies both by land and by sea, and have gathered much wealth from booty, have either been consumed by the passage of time or been taken captive and exchanged their liberty for enslavement. Indeed, in short, whatever great and unbearable evil you care to mention, life already has prior examples of it.

Therefore, just as we determine weights by a turn of the scale and assay gold by rubbing it with a touchstone, so also, if we were to remember the limits revealed to us by the Lord, we would never exceed the bounds of prudence. Whenever, therefore, any involuntary adversity befalls you, by virtue of being mentally prepared, you will avoid confusion, and you will make light of present afflictions by your hope for the future. For, just as those whose eyes are weak divert their gaze from things that are excessively bright and give them rest by looking at flowers and grass, so, also, the soul must not constantly behold that which causes grief or be fixated on present sorrows, but must direct its gaze towards what is truly good. In this way will it be feasible for you always to rejoice, if your life always looks towards God and if hope of recompense alleviates life's colors.

(Excerpt from a Homily on Thanksgiving and Mourning.)

By St. John Chrysostom

Yet for a while at least she had this gain, that she moderated her grief; such was the power of the words of Christ. On this account Martha went forth first, and Mary followed. For their affection to their Teacher did not allow them strongly to feel their present sorrow; so that the minds of these women were truly wise as well as loving.

But in our days, among our other evils there is one malady very prevalent among our women; they make a great show in their dirges and wailings, baring their arms, tearing their hair, making furrows down their cheeks. And this they do, some from grief, others from ostentation and rivalry, others from wantonness; and they bare their arms, and this too in the sight of men. Why doest thou, woman? Dost thou strip thyself in unseemly sort, tell me, thou who art a member of Christ, in the midst of the market-place, when men are present there? Dost thou pluck thy hair, and rend thy garments, and wail loudly, and join the dance, and keep throughout a resemblance to Bacchanalian women, and dost thou not think that thou art offending God? What madness is this? Will not the heathen laugh? Will they not deem our doctrines fables? They will say, “There is no resurrection—the doctrines of the Christians are mockeries, trickery, and contrivance. For their women lament as though there were nothing after this world; they give no heed to the words engraven in their books; all those words are fictions, and these women show that they are so. Since had they believed that he who hath died is not dead, but hath removed to a better life, they would not have mourned him as no longer being, they would not have thus beaten themselves, they would not have uttered such words as these, full of unbelief, ‘I shall never see thee more, I shall never more regain thee,’ all their religion is a fable, and if the very chief of good things is thus wholly disbelieved by them, much more the other things which are reverenced among them.” The heathen are not so womanish, among them many have practiced heavenly wisdom; and a woman hearing that her child had fallen in battle, straightway asked, “And in what state are the affairs of the city?” Another truly wise, when being garlanded he heard that his son had fallen for his country, took off the garland, and asked which of the two; then when he had learnt which it was, immediately put the garland on again. Many also gave their sons and their daughters for slaughter in honor of their evil deities; and Laced√¶monian women exhort their sons either to bring back their shield safe from war, or to be brought back dead upon it. Wherefore I am ashamed that the heathen show true wisdom in these matters, and we act unseemly. Those who know nothing about the Resurrection act the part of those who know; and those who know, the part of those who know not. And ofttimes many do through shame of men what they do not for the sake of God. For women of the higher class neither tear their hair nor bare their arms; which very thing is a most heavy charge against them, not because they do not strip themselves, but because they act as they do not through piety, but that they may not be thought to disgrace themselves. Is their shame stronger than grief, and the fear of God not stronger? And must not this deserve severest censure? What the rich women do because of their riches, the poor ought to do through fear of God; but at present it is quite the contrary; the rich act wisely through vainglory, the poor through littleness of soul act unseemly. What is worse than this anomaly? We do all for men, all for the things of earth. And these people utter words full of madness and much ridicule. The Lord saith indeed, “Blessed are they that mourn” (Matt. 5:4), speaking of those who mourn for their sins; and no one mourneth that kind of mourning, nor careth for a lost soul; but this other we were not bidden to practice, and we practice it. “What then?” saith some one, “Is it possible being man not to weep?” No, neither do I forbid weeping, but I forbid the beating yourselves, the weeping immoderately. I am neither brutal nor cruel. I know that our nature asks and seeks for its friends and daily companions; it cannot but be grieved. As also Christ showed, for He wept over Lazarus. So do thou; weep, but gently, but with decency, but with the fear of God. If so thou weepest, thou dost so not as disbelieving the Resurrection, but as not enduring the separation. Since even over those who are leaving us, and departing to foreign lands, we weep, yet we do this not as despairing.

And so do thou weep, as if thou wert sending one on his way to another land. These things I say, not as giving a rule of action, but as condescending (to human infirmity). For if the dead man have been a sinner, and one who hath in many things offended God, it behooveth to weep (or rather not to weep only, since that is of no avail to him, but to do what one can to procure some comfort for him by almsgivings and offerings;) but it behooveth also to rejoice at this, that his wickedness hath been cut short. If he have been righteous, it again behooveth to be glad, that what is his is now placed in security, free from the uncertainty of the future; if young, that he hath been quickly delivered from the common evils of life; if old, that he hath departed after taking to satiety that which is held desirable. But thou, neglecting to consider these things, incitest thy hand-maidens to act as mourners, as if forsooth thou wert honoring the dead, when it is an act of extreme dishonor. For honor to the dead is not wailings and lamentings, but hymns and psalmodies and an excellent life. The good man when he departeth, shall depart with angels, though no man be near his remains; but the corrupt, though he have a city to attend his funeral, shall be nothing profited. Wilt thou honor him who is gone? Honor him in another way, by alms-deeds, by acts of beneficence and public service. What avail the many lamentations? And I have heard also another grievous thing, that many women attract lovers by their sad cries, acquiring by the fervor of their wailings a reputation for affection to their husbands. O devilish purpose! O Satanic invention! How long are we but dust and ashes, how long but blood and flesh? Look we up to heaven, take we thought of spiritual things. How shall we be able to rebuke the heathen, how to exhort them, when we do such things? How shall we dispute with them concerning the Resurrection? How about the rest of heavenly wisdom? How shall we ourselves live without fear? Knowest not thou that of grief cometh death? for grief darkening the seeing part of the soul not only hindereth it from perceiving anything that it ought, but also worketh it great mischief. In one way then we offend God, and advantage neither ourselves nor him who is gone; in the other we please God, and gain honor among men. If we sink not down ourselves, He will soon remove the remains of our despondency; if we are discontented, He permitteth us to be given up to grief. If we are thankful, we shall not despond. “But how,” saith some one, “is it possible not to be grieved, when one has lost a son or daughter or wife?” I say not, “not to grieve,” but “not to do so immoderately.” For if we consider that God hath taken away, and that the husband or son which we had was mortal, we shall soon receive comfort. To be discontented is the act of those who seek for something higher than their nature. Thou wast born man, and mortal; why then grievest thou that what is natural hath come to pass? Grievest thou that thou art nourished by eating? Seekest thou to live without this? Act thus also in the case of death, and being mortal seek not as yet for immortality. Once for all this thing hath been appointed. Grieve not therefore, nor play the mourner, but submit to laws laid on all alike. Grieve for thy sins; this is good mourning, this is highest wisdom. Let us then mourn for this cause continually, that we may obtain the joy which is there, through the grace and lovingkindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

(From Homily 62 on the Gospel of John.)