From the onset, I want to warn readers that this is not a pastoral article for our brothers and sisters dealing with sorrow. Jesus is “a man of sorrows” (Is 53:3) and “was tempted in every way that we are, but did not sin” (Heb 4:15). He knows our pain—but not our sinfulness.
This article’s concern is chiefly Christological and Mariological. So, its is not intended to console those with sorrow and it may very well make those who are sorrowful feel more guilty about their plight. Please speak to one’s spiritual father about this. I will only say that God knows our weakness and is compassionate. If the Mother of God herself, the paragon of holiness amongst fallen humanity, dealt with grief to the point of doubting her Son, then any one of us can be prey to sorrow. We, like her, must seek swift healing by trusting in Jesus Christ, His work on the cross, His resurrection, and cast our cares upon Him.
Now, onto theology.
Saint Maximus taught that sadness is in fact a blameworthy passion that is the result of the fall—a stain of original sin. In the Questions to Thalassius he writes that after the Fall:
[T[he great and innumerable mob of passions was introduced into human life and corrupted it. Thus our life became filled with much groaning…If, on the other hand, our condition of self-love is distressed by pain, then we give birth to anger, envy, hate, enmity, remembrance of past injuries, reproach, slander, oppression, sorrow, hopelessness, despair, the denial of providence, torpor, negligence, despondency, discouragement, faint-heartedness, grief out of season, weeping and wailing, dejection, lamentation, envy, jealousy, spite, and whatever else is produced by our inner disposition when it is deprived of occasions for pleasure. (1.2.15)
Now, many may contend with Maximus’ teaching by saying Jesus “groaned” (John 11:34) and “wept” (John 11:35). We must be careful to read these passages in a Christologically orthodox way.
We know that Jesus “was tempted in every way,” but we also know that “God cannot be tempted by evil” (James 1:13). So, we must understand He was “tempted in every way, WITHOUT SIN” (the Greek does not necessarily include the word “but.”)
In other words, He was tempted in every blameless, without sin. sort of way—hunger, thirst, pain, privation—but not by sinful temptations such as sex, avarice, and the like. I have covered in detail elsewhere that Jesus Christ voluntarily assumed blameless passions, which were in fact not inherent to His sinless human nature as by nature flesh that is sinless, like Adam’s in paradise, experiences none of these things. However, Jesus did voluntarily experience these things as it was naturally possible for Him to. Adamite (prelapsarian) flesh is not glorified flesh—it can contain fallen aspects naturally because the fall did really occur in the prelapsarian flesh, turning it into postlapsarian flesh. Prelapsarian flesh tends towards immortality, but it is not truly immortal until it is glorified. Glorified flesh cannot experience the fall. So, Enoch, Elijah, Moses, Mary, and others (if they exist) with resurrected bodies cannot fall into sin like Adam and Eve, because they have glorified bodies. This, for them, would be an impossibility.
This being said, we must be careful not to assume Jesus weeps for the same reason we grieve. We often grieve because we feel an intense, sorrow due to personal loss or some sort of self-love. Jesus did not experience this sort of sorrow, which Maximus states is from the passions.
Weeping that arises from the blameless passions is much different. For example, weeping from laughter is not the same as grief. Weeping from hitting one’s thumb with a hammer also is not the same as grief. Weeping out of compassion and empathy is also not the same as grief.
When Jesus wept, this does not mean he was weeping from grief—which clearly the
Theotokos did during her son’s crucifixion.
As a brief aside, while grief and weeping from such are blameworthy passions, only the consent of the will to despondency is sin. So, our Orthodox icons of the Theotokos and Saint John weeping at the crucifixion is not a terrible example of sin—this would be absurd. It is a demonstration of God’s people, with postlapsarian flesh, experiencing grief as we all do. They were not despondent and so did not sin. Saint Basil (Letter 260, Par 9) and Saint Maximus (Life of the Virgin, Par 53) both speak of the Theotokos having instant healing from precisely this predicament.
The preceding being said, how did Jesus weep? First, let’s plainly look at what the Scriptures indicate. In John 11:31 there are “Jews” consoling Mary and Martha. It is not clear whether they were professional mourners (Jer 9:17), but they wept with Mary and Martha (John 11:33) akin to those wailing for a ruler’s dead daughter in Matt 9:23. Clearly, community-mourning was some sort of social custom in Judea. Contextually, we must understand that Jesus was joining in this social custom, which He was obviously accustomed to. What he was not doing was grieving the death of Lazarus, as He was calm four days beforehand being fully cognizant of its occurrence. Clearly, Jesus was showing pity for Mary and those there, joining in the community mourning.
The saints are careful to point out Jesus was certainly not mourning out of unmitigated grief.
Even Jesus wept for Lazarus because He loved him. John 11:35-36 But he is a poor comforter who is overcome by his own sighs, and from whose afflicted heart tears are wrung as well as words. (Saint Jerome, Lett 39, Par 5)
The sisters of Lazarus could not help weeping for him, although they knew that he would rise again. And the Saviour himself — to show that he possessed true human feeling — mourned for him whom He was about to raise. John 11:35 (Saint Jerome, Lett 60, Par 7)
He groaned in the spirit, and troubled Himself, and said, Where have ye laid him? Something there is, did we but know it, that He has suggested to us by groaning in the spirit, and troubling Himself. For who could trouble Him, save He Himself?… Christ wept; let man bemoan himself. For why did Christ weep, but to teach man to weep? Wherefore did He groan and trouble Himself, but to intimate that the faith of one who has just cause to be displeased with himself ought to be in a sense groaning over the accusation of wicked works, to the end that the habit of sinning may give way to the vehemence of penitential sorrow? (Saint Augustine, Tractate 49, Par 18-19)
He only acts measurably and condescends; and to prove His human nature, weeps in silence, and defers the miracle for the present…He draws to Him many witnesses by His condescension, and shows proof of His human nature (Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 63, Comments on John 11:33).*
*Chrysostom also makes mentions of “grief” in the immediate context. However, Jesus is purposely showing the feeling of “grief” (and “rebuking” it) in order to “free the miracle” of the raising of Lazarus “from suspicion.” (CF 11:35-36 in Homily 63) For this reason, interpretatively I believe this “grief” is in fact an example of sorrowful sympathy, because it pertains to bringing the audience in to witness the miracle and demonstrate his human nature. It does not demonstrate that Jesus had a fallen experience of personal grief. Saint Theophylact, probably the saint most dependent upon Chrysostom in his own exegesis, clearly interprets Chrysostom in this sense.
To prove His human nature He sometimes gives it free vent, while at other times He commands, and restrains it by, the power of the Holy Ghost. Our Lord allows His nature to be affected in these ways both to prove that He is very Man, not Man in appearance only; and also to teach us by His own example the due measures of joy and grief. For the absence altogether of sympathy and sorrow is brutal, the excess of them is womanly. (Saint Theophylact, Comments on John 11:35)
Mary did not say so much as Martha, she could not bring out what she wanted for weeping, as is usual with persons overwhelmed with sorrow…It is customary to mourn over the death of friends; and thus the Jews explained our Lord’s weeping (Saint Bede, Comments on John 11:32-35)
Most illustrative are the comments of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, because he teaches the two natures of Christ and clearly anticipates Maximus’ theory of the passions in Thalassius by centuries:
And He weeps a little, and straightway checks His tears; lest He might seem to be at all cruel and inhuman, and at the same time instructing us not to give way overmuch in grief for the dead. For it is one thing to be influenced by sympathy, and another to be effeminate and unmanly. For this cause therefore He permitted His own flesh to weep a little, although it was in its nature tearless and incapable of any grief, so far as regards its own nature. (Comments on John 11:36-37)
As we can see, Saint Cyril literally states that Jesus’ human nature is “tearless and incapable of any grief.” No exegesis is possible that this pertains to Jesus’ divine nature, as “His own flesh” is the “it” whose “nature” is “incapable of any grief.” Cyril also explicitly states that Jesus wept “influenced by sympathy” and not an “effeminate” grief. This explains how he exegetes Mary’s own grief, clearly considering it effeminate and fallen:
[T]he unexpected fate of our Lord was an offence unto His mother, and that His exceeding bitter death upon the Cross almost banished from her heart due reflection…For, doubtless, some such train of thought as this passed through her mind: “I conceived Him that is mocked upon the Cross. He said, indeed, that He was the true Son of Almighty God, but it may be that He was deceived; He may have erred”…The woman, as is likely, not exactly understanding the mystery, wandered astray into some such train of thought; for we shall do well to remember, that the character of these events was such as to awe and subdue the most sober mind. And no marvel if a woman fell into such an error…What wonder, then, if a woman’s frail mind was also plunged into thoughts which betrayed weakness?…For we remember that the righteous Simeon…[prophesied] the keen pang of suffering, which would divide the mind of the woman into strange thoughts. (Comments on John 19:25)
We can see what Saint Cyril considered Mary’s actions as “effeminate” and something not possible in Christ’s sinless human nature. What occurred in the Theotokos’ womanly and “frail mind” inspired no wonder in Cyril. He also makes clear her sorrow was that of intense grief likened to a Saint Simeon’s “sword” piercing her, which is not like Christ’s which is “incapable of any grief.”
What is the application to the preceding? Roman Catholics are not consenting to the Patristic consensus of Christology nor Mariology on this matter and therefore think nothing of teaching the heresy of the Immaculate Conception. Catholic Encyclopedia admits this in its article on the Immaculate Conception, stating that, “In regard to the sinlessness of Mary the older Fathers are very cautious: some of them even seem to have been in error on this matter.”
“Some” minimizes the sheer extent of Fathers and early writers who share the above interpretation of Saint Cyril including:
- Origen (Homily 17 of the Gospel of Luke, according to Catholic Encyclopedia)
- Saint Basil the Great (Letter 260, in Par 9 he asserts “there is no diversity of interpretation” on this point.)
- Ambrosiaster (Questions and Answers on the Gospel of Luke, Question 73)
- Saint Hilary of Poitiers (Homily on Psalm 118, see verse 20)
- Saint Augustine (Catena on Luke 2:35)
- Saint Maximus (Life of the Virgin, Par 53)
- Saint Maximus wrote: “[G]rief and doubt that came upon the disciples at the Crucifixion of the Lord and struck the heart of the immaculate Mary like lightning, immediately, in an instant, healing and consolation were introduced by the Lord, who strengthened their hearts by her faith, so that her fortitude was made manifest.”
- Note: Saint Bede in the Catena on Luke 2:35 affirms Mary had grief, but expresses ignorance of how she died and also states she “doubted not that He who was begotten of her flesh would overcome death.” It appears he was unaware of the wider tradition, or possibly like Maximus believed that Mary doubted but healing “like lightning” helped her “manifest” her “fortitude” for the benefit of the Apostles.
In this one article we have cited seven early witnesses on John 19:25. There are probably more, as Saint Basil taught that this was the universal interpretation.
This was not some minor point of exegesis. Perhaps the two most important post-Biblical saints in the history of Christology, Saint Cyril and Saint Maximus (if we accept the authenticity of the ascription of his name to the Life of the Virgin) teach both this AND make the point that Jesus Christ only voluntarily assumed natural passions. Hence, the contrast between the prelapsarian nature of Christ’s flesh and the postlapsarian nature of Mary’s is exceedingly clear from the very saints we rely on to firmly understand these matters.
Who would have thought that understanding the Biblical and Patristic teaching on sorrow, we would delve so deeply into the depths of such important doctrines? No one! This is precisely why it was overlooked by Roman Catholics when they defined their doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.