Crying and its Theological Significance

In her book Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s character John writes these words. “It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over. Sometimes they really do struggle with it. I see that in church often enough. So I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you’re done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except laughter is much more easily spent.” She is correct at all points. Laughter does take over the body; laughter does expel something; crying and laughter are similar. The last point is probably the most obvious: laughter is more easily spent than crying. We could draw this point out in a slightly different direction. Laughter is more easily spent and it is also much easier to participate in — it is “an amazing thing to watch” and, as the old cliche goes, laughter is contagious. Crying, on the other hand, is difficult to watch and not something in which people will gladly join. Robinson’s observation, about both laughing and crying, illuminates the reality that these actions have a deep significance to them. Neither crying nor laughing are merely responsive, as if we only cry because something sad happened. Something more seems to be happening when we laugh and when we cry. 

I first became aware of the significance of crying last summer. Jessie and I were at a cookout when my best friend Jon called. I let his first call go to voicemail; when he called again, Jessie answered. “I need to tell you and Zen something,” he started. Jon and Ruthy were married exactly one month before this phone call, so I thought maybe we were going to learn that they were having a honeymoon baby. I was, needless to say, in the wrong state of mind for what he was actually about to say. “Sean is missing. He was kayaking and went over a dam. They can’t find him. I’m on my way to Indiana now.” I cried that night a kind of crying I had not experienced before, crying characterized by convulsion, disorientation, and shallow, shaken breaths.

Sean

Sean kayaking with friends weeks before the accident that took his life.

Jessie and I drove to Indiana the next day. We arrived in the evening, just as a midwestern summer rain was trailing off. The river was loud, unrelenting. Jen, Sean’s mom, was at the bridge where Sean was last seen. When she saw me, she pulled me into a strong embrace — as if I alone were the one who needed support. Her tears were warm, unrelenting. When Katie, Sean’s sister, returned to the bridge we had nearly the same interaction. A long and abiding hug, consecrated with more tears. These kind of interactions were plentiful throughout that long weekend. They were unavoidable and, I think, they were necessary. These bouts of crying, both individually and communally, opened my mind to the possibility that crying was more than a simple response to something sad. I began to wonder about the significance of crying.

Marilynne Robinson’s quote points to one kind of significance. She suggests that something is expended through laughter. We can assume that something is also expended through crying. Grief, fear, uncertainty, doubt, hurt. Take your pick. Crying’s ability to expend these feelings makes it a healing activity — it brings healing to the person who cries. While healing is significant, there is yet a another significance to crying, a significance we can get at by asking about what happens when we cry together. More specifically, is there theological significance in crying together?

***

Jesus knew that Lazarus was dead before he arrived at Bethany. Yet when Mary collapsed and wept at Jesus’s feet, Jesus wept too. John Locke was right, I think, in criticizing the fragmentation of Gospels and Letters into chapters and verses. It often distracts us from the flow of the words themselves. Then again, in this story, I think the verse delineation is spot on. “Jesus wept.” Whoever decided that such a tiny phrase — ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς — should be its own verse recognized the weight of that tiny phrase. Jesus had already told his disciples that Lazarus was dead — so he was not surprised by Lazarus’s death — and he had already told Martha that she would see Lazarus raised, though she did not understand — so he was not without hope. Still, Jesus wept. But why?

The Jews who saw Jesus weep said “See how he loved Lazarus.” But John tells us that Jesus “groaned in his spirit” and “was troubled” after Mary collapsed and wept at his feet. Jesus wept because Mary wept. Yes, Jesus loved Lazarus. But I think Jesus wept because he took a small portion of Mary’s immense grief upon himself, somewhere in his spirit. He shared her burden of grief and wept alongside her and the others present. This is not surprising, I suppose, if Jesus is the one John the Baptist proclaimed, the one foretold by Isaiah, who was coming to earth to “bind up the brokenhearted” and eventually wipe away every tear. Moreover, Jesus’s weeping with those who mourn parallels Paul’s directive to the Romans to “weep with those who weep.” Jesus wept because he was bound together with Mary, in her grief, and could ease the burden of her grief through receiving some of it himself.

Sean went missing on Tuesday evening. We arrived Thursday night. Friday morning, before the search and rescue team launched their boats into the river, an officer approached Sean’s parents, Jen and Dave. I do not know exactly what that officer said, but I can never un-know the cry that came from Jen’s whole body. She clutched Dave’s sweatshirt before collapsing to the ground, letting out an unrestrained cry. In that moment, I think, I was bound in a way previously unknown to me. I was bound to Jen in her weeping. I was bound to Katie, Mackenzie, Parker, Kara, Jon, Jordan, Scott, Tim, Sam, and so many others, friends and strangers alike. And they were bound to me. We shared the weight of grief together.

Theologically speaking, we could try to categorize the experience of crying, so described, into various doctrines — maybe into the doctrine of the church or a doctrine of anthropology. We have, however, already seen that crying can be located in Christ and, therefore, in the Trinity. Christ is not the only member of the Trinity who takes on our grief. We must also recall Paul’s words about the suffering we experience in this age. When we grieve and do not know how to pray, “the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Jesus’s compassion toward Mary continues as an activity now carried out by the Holy Spirit.

Lazarus Icon.jpg

Is it too much to suggest that the Spirit is indiscriminately present with all those who weep, with all those who grieve? The Holy Spirit has been known, from time to time, to bind people together into one body, which would explain the bond that happens between those who cry together. But how far can we push such a claim? Can we say that the Spirit is present even with those who have not confessed Jesus as Lord? With those who have not been baptized into the people of God? I cannot be certain, but I think so. Jesus, who sent the Holy Spirit to the Church following His Resurrection, is the same Jesus who met a grieving mother along His way:

Now as He approached the gate of the city, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a sizeable crowd from the city was with her. When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, “Do not weep” (Luke 7:12-13).

Jesus, you might notice, did not ask who this woman was or what she believed. He encountered a weeping woman and offered her compassion. It is my hope that Jesus, who dwells together with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, still sees all of us who grieve — without discrimination — and still meets us with compassion. Perhaps it is the case that the Holy Spirit is present in the act of crying, groaning with us, and uniting us in a special bond. This is not to say that all will respond with faith or even gratitude at the presence of the Holy Spirit. It is to say that God is never absent in this grieving world, never absent to those who cry. That is the deeper significance of crying. The Church, then, as the body of Christ, has a duty to be present, in compassion and in unity, with a grieving world . Perhaps through the grace of God, we will be as compassionate as the Jesus who walked the earth.

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