The Blessing of Tears

Why there is healing power in weeping.

I have just finished reading the late Alice Miller’s book The Drama of the Gifted Child. In it she explores the lifetime damage adults may cause infants and children by abusing and disrespecting them, either physically or psychologically.

A detail of a weeping woman from the painting “The Brawl” by Georges de la Tour (1593-1652).

This abuse can be very subtle. It occurs, she says, whenever parents manipulate their children to meet the parents’ emotional needs rather than the child’s. As a protection, children learn to stifle their own emotions, emotions that create anxiety in their parents. Those stifled emotions get stored in the body. As the child grows into adulthood, the repressed feelings can then feed both grandiosity and depression.

The aim of therapy, she writes, is not to correct the past, but to enable the patient both to confront his history and grieve over it.* That can free us from troubling emotions. What is freeing is facing and accepting the truth about our lives.

What caught my special attention in this book is the emphasis Miller places on the healing power of mourning. We cannot go back and change the past. What has happened in the past, especially if it represents a deep loss or something profoundly damaging, has happened. We cannot change that. What we as adults can do is mourn. This can release us from the emotions that our loss has caused.

The Theme of Mourning in the Bible

I found this an insight. It brought to mind the frequent references to mourning that we find throughout the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. One of the most vivid is the story of King David mourning the death of his son Absalom told in 2 Samuel 18.

His son has attempted a coup d’état against his father. David’s general Joab slays Absalom after battle. A messenger brings the good news to David. To the dismay of his court, David sinks into an inconsolable lament:

O my son Absalom,

my son, my Absalom!

Would I have died instead of you,

O Absalom, my son, my son! (2 Samuel 18:33)**

The Old Testament book of Lamentations is one long poetic lament over the Babylonian destruction of the city of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. The poet says of the city:

She weeps bitterly in the night,

with tears on her cheeks…. (Lamentations 1:2)

The Psalms are also filled with songs of lament. They in fact outnumber psalms of praise and joy. They carry many references to weeping, like these lines from Psalm 126:

Restore our fortunes, O LORD,

            like the watercourses in the Negeb.

May those who sow in tears

            reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping,

            bearing the seed for sowing,

shall come home with shouts of joy,

            carrying their sheaves. (Psalm 126:4-6)

And when we come to the gospels, we come upon the amazing passage in John 11 when Jesus stands outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus. At that moment, the gospel says: Jesus wept (John 11:35). Bible handbooks will tell us this is the shortest verse in English Bibles. What that item of tidbit information does not convey is the power of these two words. They express the depth of Jesus’ own sorrow in the face of death.

The Healing Power of Tears

These passages show how the Biblical writers do not shy away from sorrow and their accompanying tears. There may be a reason why they do so. They, like Alice Miller, see them not only as a reality of life, but also as having healing power.

Crying becomes a way the body releases the deep emotions that result from loss, tragedy, and trauma. Our bodies and our emotions are intimately interconnected. Instead of storing up the emotions, the body begins to wash them away through the flow of tears. Tears then become a form of blessing.

This suggests there is something very counterproductive in the old cultural bias that big boys don’t cry. In so teaching our boys and young men, we may be nurturing the repression of feelings that will later emerge as perversions and destructive violence. How many of our mass shootings come from angry young men who are often remembered as silent in their rage.

The Role of Tears in Christian Spirituality

Writers on the spiritual life often talk about the gift of tears as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit at work. As we grow more mature in our spiritual lives, our hearts are transformed from hard to soft.

The emphasis on the spiritual gift of tears begins to become prominent in Christian spirituality with the desert fathers and mothers. These are the ascetics who fled civilized life to live lives of prayer and penitence in the Egyptian and Syrian deserts in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries. In their ascetic communities the gift of tears was understood as an accompaniment to true conversion.

Writing about their attitude, Billy Kangas has said:

The desert fathers saw salvation as a more holistic sense of healing. Forgiveness is part of being saved, but there is a great deal more to it than that. The desert fathers read through the Bible and discovered the language of salvation and the language of healing are interwoven. As we are healed, we are saved…In the minds of the desert fathers healing begins in the heart, and tears are a powerful balm.***

This emphasis that begins with the desert fathers and mothers has continued as a theme in Christian spirituality ever since. It holds an especially prominent place in Eastern Orthodox spirituality.

The God Who Weeps

What is so healing about tears? For one, in our mourning we begin to shed illusions about our life. As Alice Miller says, we begin to face the truth about our lives. But also in tears we shed some of the pernicious emotions that nest in our bodies, emotions like anger, jealousy, and despair.

Our tears are part of the process of transformation. They help flush out our negativity. They water our receptivity to the Holy Spirit. This in turn nurtures fertility in our spirits so that the fruits of the Spirit, like love, joy, and compassion, are given space to grow and flourish.

So we need not be alarmed when as we advance on our spiritual journey, we find ourselves sometimes overcome with weeping. It may be a sign that we are entering into the very heart of God. For an amazing passage in the prophet Hosea (Hosea 11) suggests that God himself weeps.

In this passage God speaks to Israel (Ephraim) about the destruction and exile that is coming upon their kingdom. God is abandoning them in this catastrophe because of their faithlessness. But this rips at the very heart of God, as expressed in these moving sentences:

How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! How can I make you like Admah! How can I treat you like Zeboiim! My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy. (Hosea 11:8-9)

 The passage makes no explicit mention of tears, but it pulls back the veil so that we can see into the broken heart of God.

* Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self. Basic Books, 2007. Page 106.

** A number of composers have set this lament to music. One of my favorites is a setting by the Renaissance English composer Orlando Gibbons.

*** Billy Kangas, The Role of Tears in the Spiritual Life: Lessons from the Desert Fathers, a blog posted May 2, 2011 on the Catholic Channel of Patheos. This posting provides a good discussion on the role of tears in the ascetic theology of the Desert Fathers and Mothers and in Eastern Orthodox spirituality. Another good online discussion is by Macrina Walker, The gift of tears, a blog posted July 30, 2008 on her blog site A Vow of Conversation.



Matthew’s Christmas Genealogy

Matthew’s genealogy for Jesus departs from the Hebrew norm.

A favorite medieval image of the genealogy of Jesus was the Jesse tree. The image pictured the family tree of Jesus as arising out of the side of Jesse, the father of David.

When a Biblical author introduces an important figure into his narrative, he sometimes starts by giving that person’s genealogy. His illustrious ancestry underscores the figure’s historical significance.

Let me offer two examples. When the author/editor of Genesis introduces Abram (later renamed Abraham) into his story, he begins with Abram’s genealogy (Genesis 11:10-30). The list of Abram’s ancestors stretches back to the patriarch Noah. This ties Abram into the story of God’s redemptive interventions into history.

When the author of the book of Ezra introduces Ezra into his narrative, he also does so by giving Ezra’s distinguished ancestry (Ezra 7:1-6). The genealogy underscores Ezra’s status in the line of priests going back to Aaron, Moses’ brother. It gives Ezra great credibility as an interpreter of Torah.

It should not surprise us then when Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogy for Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17). The genealogy highlights Jesus’ royal ancestors stretching back to King David. This supports Jesus’ status as the promised Son of David who will usher in the kingdom of God.

It does not stop with David, but also pushes the recitation of Jesus’ ancestors back to Abraham, thereby firmly establishing Jesus’s status as a genuine Jew. Both identities are important to the story about Jesus that Matthew will recount.

Matthew Places a Surprise in  Jesus’ Genealogy

Matthew, however, gives an unexpected twist to his genealogy. Old Testament genealogies always trace the line of descent from father to son. What counts is the male succession. The names of mothers are omitted.

But Matthew includes four women in his genealogy. And they are four women whose names you would expect a Jew with a proper sense of social propriety to suppress, not highlight.

The first is Tamar. Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Jacob’s son, Judah. She marries Judah’s son, who then dies. Following early custom, Judah’s second son should marry Tamar. But he refuses and subsequently dies, too.

Now legal custom dictates that Tamar should marry Judah’s third son. Judah, however, is fearful of losing a third son to this unlucky woman, so he procrastinates on the marriage. This keeps Tamar in a socially disadvantaged position. In her world it represents an injustice.

To rectify it, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and entices her father-in-law unknowingly into fathering twins. Judah wants to execute Tamar for adultery but Tamar turns the tables and wins vindication. (For Tamar’s story, see Genesis 38.)

The second is Rahab. She is a prostitute in Jericho who hides two Israelite spies who are scouting out the town and its defenses. In return she and her family are spared when the town falls to the Israelite armies. (For Rahab’s story, see Joshua 2.)

The third is Ruth. Ruth is a Moabite, widowed along with her mother-in-law Naomi, an Israelite. They return to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown. There Ruth ultimately wins the attention of Boaz, a local land owner. He marries her and she becomes great-grandmother of David.

As a Moabite, however, she would have been considered an outsider in Israelite society. In her faithfulness to Naomi, however, she sets an amazing example of chesed (steadfast love), the highest virtue of Israelite culture. The Biblical story places her on par with the two wives of Jacob. This is an astounding honor for a foreign woman. (For Ruth’s story, see the Book of Ruth.)

And finally Matthew mentions the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba, the woman whom David seduces and commits adultery with. She mothers Solomon, after her first son dies, a divine punishment on David’s sin. (For Bathsheba’s story, see 2 Samuel 11-12.)

Why This Departure from the Norm?

All four women have some scent of irregularity about them. So it is really odd to find Matthew including them in his genealogy. Why would he do so? There may be two reasons.

First this genealogy immediately precedes Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. That account places great emphasis on Mary being a virgin when she conceives Jesus.

Her pregnancy would have been scandalous in her own society and cause for extreme social condemnation. Joseph plans to divorce her until God sets his anxieties at ease. But

The second reason may not be intentional, but reveals something about the spirit of the Jesus movement that arises out of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus himself is constantly welcoming the social and spiritual outsider. He is notorious for welcoming sinners, tax collectors, the sick, lame, and those socially ostracized by unclean illness like lepers.

The early church also breaks the boundaries that defined proper Jewish society. The Christian movement (as recounted in the Book of Acts) welcomes into its membership Samaritans, eunuchs, and supremely Gentiles as fully equal members of the community. And we see in both Acts and the letters of Paul hints that women were playing important roles in the growth of that community.

This spirit of inclusiveness makes the Christian movement suspect to those who feel the boundaries of the spiritual community must be drawn quite rigidly. (It still does.) It makes early Christianity a threatening force in the Mediterranean cultures of its day.

Matthew may be exhibiting something of this inclusive spirit by including the four women he does in his genealogy. When we encounter this feature in the very opening words of Matthew’s gospel, it alerts us that as we read into the Jesus story that Matthew will recount, we need to expect that our social and spiritual preconceptions of what is proper will be challenged over and over again.



The Translator’s Dilemma

Sometimes we can’t duplicate in English the literary depth of the Biblical writers.

William Tyndale (1494-1536), one of the greatest English translators of the Bible.

Bible translators have their challenges. How do you put into English a pun in the original Hebrew or a Greek word with a double meaning? That may be impossible. The English translation necessarily loses something of the cleverness or depth of the original Hebrew or Greek. Let me illustrate with three examples.

In Amos 8:1-3, the prophet pronounces God’s doom upon the kingdom of Israel. The proclamation opens with the lines:

This is what the LORD God showed me–a basket of summer fruit.

He said, “Amos, what do you see?”

And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”

Then the word from God goes on:

“The end has come upon my people Israel;

            I will never again pass them by.

The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day,” says the Lord GOD;

            “the dead bodies shall be many,

            cast out in every place. Be silent!” 

What logical connection does summer fruit have with the end of the kingdom? You would never catch it in an English translation. In the Hebrew the connection hinges on a pun. The Hebrew word for summer fruit is qayits, for end is qets.

Missing the pun is not going to undermine the theological message of the oracle. But the English reader is going to miss the pun. As a result we don’t appreciate how clever the prophet–or God–has been in making his message memorable. (We must always remember that prophetic utterances were given orally. Listeners preserved them by memorization.) It helps us understand how the Biblical writers are not just great theologians, but also great communicators.

Double Meanings in the Dialogue with Nicodemus

Equally challenging is translating words that have double meanings, and the author may deliberately intend that both meanings apply to his message. There are two outstanding examples in the gospels.

In the famous dialogue scene between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3:1-21, Jesus says to Nicodemus: Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen. This Greek word anothen has a dual meaning. It can mean anew or again. If the translator chooses this meaning, then we get the translation of John 3:7 so hallowed in Evangelical church circles: Ye must be born again (King James Version).

Anothen, however, has an alternative meaning: from above. If the translator opts for this meaning, then John 3:7 reads in the New Revised Standard Version: You must be born from above. No English translation can convey both meanings at the same time as the Greek does.

The Greek text seems to be purposely ambiguous because Jesus wants to hold both meanings together in his discussion of spiritual rebirth. The rebirth of which he speaks is not just a second birth, but a birth that is effected by the Holy Spirit.

If you are going to understand Jesus’ teaching, you must hold both meanings together. But there is no English word that holds those two meanings together like the Greek anothen. The translator must choose one translation over the other, thus risking watering down the fullness of what Jesus is saying.

Two Dimensions of the Kingdom of God

Another saying of Jesus also hinges on the word he uses having a double meaning. This occurs in a passage where Jesus is responding to the Pharisees and their question when the kingdom of God is coming (Luke 17:20-21). Jesus responds:

The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.

 A critical Greek word with a double meaning appears in the last sentence. The translators of the New Revised Standard Version translate it as among. The Greek word is entos. And it can indeed mean among. The NRSV translators probably translated it that way because the you in the sentence is plural in the Greek. This gives a strong communal cast to Jesus’ saying.

But entos can also mean within. If a translator chooses this translation (as does the King James Version), he is giving Jesus’ saying a more interior cast. Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is to be found within yourselves. Here the focus is more on the believer’s inner disposition.

Once again the use of the Greek entos with its dual meaning seems to be deliberate. For a full understanding of Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God means we must perceive both its inner psychological and its communal dimensions.

The call to enter the Kingdom is a call to an inner journey, a journey that will take us deep into spiritual practices and disciplines. But the call to enter the Kingdom will also call us out of our individual selves into working for and living in the renewed society that is noted by its qualities of harmony, service, and peace. The inner journey and the outer journey must go hand in hand if we are to enter fully into that earthly, yet simultaneously transcendent reality that Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.

But how is a translator to hold on to both meanings in an English translation? It’s probably impossible. That’s why responsible translations will alert their readers to the alternate translations in a footnote (as does the NRSV). But it takes a reader paying close attention to footnotes if he or she is to grasp the richness of the Biblical text. Bible study takes work.

A cautionary note: The two examples I give of the double meanings to words Jesus uses applies to the Greek words in which the gospels are written. Jesus, however, presumably spoke Aramaic when he taught. Could the same double meanings be duplicated in the Aramaic vocabulary he used? I don’t know Aramaic, but I would hazard a guess that the answer is probably not. This highlights the critical importance of the Greek language as a vehicle of revelation in the writing of the gospels.