Sunday, 19 June 2016

Weep not for me

Luke 23:27-31 “A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children.'”

Who were the “Daughters of Jerusalem”? They were professional mourners whose task was to lament an individual’s grievous end. It was part of Jewish culture of that age. They were also present in the home of Jairus, where they came from the surrounding community and had pressed into the room where she lay on her bed in death. And as he rebukes them here, Jesus turned them away then.

As a preacher at Alfred Place Baptist Church comments:

“In our culture at Anglican weddings choir boys sing and get paid. In Jesus’ culture at funerals there would be a people who would wail and would be paid for it. Their effectiveness was registered in decibels. If you were very poor you knew you still had to gather together your shekels and pay a single person to make public lamentation and one person to play the flute. It was the traditional unchallenged practice of the time, but Jesus himself simply wept quietly with Lazarus’ sisters in the graveyard where his friend’s body had been buried.”

John V Taylor, former Bishop of Winchester, had this to say in a series of talks he gave called “Weep Not For Me”

"It is the only divine prohibition in the Passion story. The crucifixion narrative opens with this word to the women by the wayside. The story of his resurrection begins with a similar word to a woman in the garden: Touch me not. At these tremendous moments, Jesus says no to the easy spontaneous emotion, the quick release of tension, because it is misdirected and because it is dangerous. Tears for the physical suffering of the Crucified, embraces for the physical body of the Risen Lord - these are too shallow: they focus attention on the wrong things.”

“We should be thankful for this prohibition. We belong to a culture, especially in the Western lands, in which feelings have been prostituted. Tears are wrung from us for our entertainment. We enjoy a good cry -and feel better afterwards and quickly forget what it was that moved us. We are accustomed to watching the misery of others on our TV or cinema screens without ever having to do anything about it. But it is very rarely that we weep for truth. It is very rarely that we weep for our sins or for the love of God. Pity is too cheap. We need the bracing realism of Jesus who turned out the professional mourners - Why this crying and commotion'?”

We don't have professional mourners, but we do have a zeitgiest in which vicarious grief is notably visible. In “The Good Funeral Guide”, there is a comment on our modern culture of grief by Damian Thompson:

“A few weeks after the murders of the schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in 2002, I stood in Soham parish church with the vicar, the Rev Tim Alban Jones. He had made an excellent impression in the media by asking the public to pray for the girls’ families while discouraging maudlin displays of “grief ”. But he’d only been partly successful. A corner of his church was piled to the ceiling with cardboard boxes full of soft toys – in memory of the dead girls. The vicar pointed them out to me with a baffled expression. “Why do people send teddy bears?” he asked.”

“As a nation we have developed an odd relationship with grief. It’s not just that we are fascinated by tragedies; we are deeply moved by our own reaction to them. This is where those teddy bears come into the picture. The soft toys weren’t intended as comfort for the families of two horribly murdered girls. Their purpose was to provide emotional satisfaction for the people who sent them – a “personal” tribute to Holly and Jessica by members of the public who, a decade later, probably have difficulty remembering their names.”

“Although the vicarious grief over Diana was unusually intense, it was a classic demonstration of post-religious spirituality. The same goes for the outpouring of sympathy for Fabrice Muamba, a footballer few people had heard of before he collapsed.”

“Modern Westerners, including Christians, no longer believe in the supernatural in the taken-for-granted fashion of our ancestors. Confronted by major life events, we find solace in our own compassion.”

It is a challenge to us, to see how much we are honouring the loss of live, and how much of it is, in the words of one commentator, a manufactured-emotion fest, an occasion to feel and to feel good about ourselves for how much and how bad we feel.

John Taylor also lays down a challenge to those who grieve vicariously, regarding how involved we really are, and how we need to become more so. He distinguishes between what is a kind of pity, a distant effect, and taking up the challenge of becoming more involved.

“The Cross of Jesus Christ cannot be observed objectively from a position of detachment. To be there at all is to be involved, implicated one way or another. That is why all but one of the disciples were not there: they were not ready to be involved. The daughters of Jerusalem were not ready to be involved, they preferred to pity.”

“Pity is one of the most deceptive of human emotions. It is a half-way stopping place on the way to discipleship. Yet at no time did Jesus ask us to pity him, or to pity his brothers or sisters in whom we are meant to find him. We are called to feed them and clothe them, visit them in sickness and in prison. We are called to become involved in them at the level of our wills and our action. So if we are to pay attention to his passion and resurrection this week we shall become involved somehow or other. Our whole existence may become involved, since there is no part of it which is untouched by this event. “

And Libby Purves, writing in the Tablet, asks “how can a line be drawn between decent human sympathy and mawkish or alarmist voyeurism?” She suggests that if the useful Ignatian habit of daily examination of conscience was more fashionable, we might look at our own reactions, and perhaps feel uneasy rather than what might be more self-indulgent.

“Sometimes it is kinder and more humble to walk away from the immensely interesting tragedy and say your prayer for the victims in silence and alone. Maybe it is the decline of praying which makes us do so many noisier and tackier things. We feel we have to do something, just in order to join in.”

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