The Way of the Cross -8 My August Column

The weeping women

Weep not for me

Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

In this series of articles I’m looking at the way of the Cross and I’m trying to find the meaning behind it; the message for us. This is a curious incident on that final journey. Who were these women/ Why were they weeping and why does Jesus speak to them in the way he does? It’s very strange and it needs looking into.

I looked into the gospel accounts to see what I could find there. The only mention of this comes in Luke’s gospel.

Large numbers of people followed him, and of women too, who mourned and lamented for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, ’Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep rather for yourselves and for your children. For the days will surely come when people will say, “Happy are those who are barren, the wombs that have never borne, the breasts that have never suckled!” Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us!”; to the hills, “Cover us!” For if men use the green wood like this, what will happen when it is dry?’

Luke 23: 27, 31

The other three evangelists do not mention this incident. Why has Luke picked this out? He must have recognised an important message in this passage. The women in the passage are not the women who followed Jesus from Galilee. They are women of Jerusalem. If they are not followers why are they weeping and why does Jesus seem to discount their sorrow?

The question is one of ritual. Death has many rituals in different societies. In Jewish tradition women would be hired to come and weep and wail at funerals to set the sad, sombre tone of the occasion. This harks back to the story of Rachel whose tears prompted God’s forgiveness. Rituals like this are not uncommon in many societies. In Africa there are many tribes where wailing women are a matter of course.

I recall a story from my friend Father Pat McGuire who was on his first mission station in Ghana when he had to officiate at a funeral. The dead man’s widow jumped into the grave to be with her husband and could not be persuaded to come out. At a loss, Father Pat turned to a local priest for advice. He was told to start filling in the grave. When the first spade of earth was put in the woman jumped out. She was following a local ritual.

This may seem strange to us but we do similar things. Do you remember the film Oliver? Oliver was sold to an undertaker and dressed in black with a top hat, a mummer to precede the hearse and set a sad tone. We are still bound by funeral rituals today. We wear black. We have solemn faces, bells toll a solemn message of sadness. Yet, as Christians, we believe that death is the start of our new life in heaven; surely a happy occasion?

Rituals around death are changing in our society as we reject religion and need something in its place. I remember watching the funeral of Princess Diana and being amazed when people began throwing roses on to the hearse. Laying bunches of flowers, teddy bears or football tops on railings or at the roadside has become a ritual to mark the death of a loved one or even someone we barely knew. People are searching for something to replace a religious ritual. Perhaps the religious ritual really held no great meaning for them in the first place.

I am writing this while we are celebrating (?) the start of the First World War, the Great War as the media are calling it again. We have solemn ceremonies of rembrance of those who dies one hundred years ago. There seems to be little remembrance of those politicians who failed to avert a war in the first place. History shows little evidence of lessons learnt from the slaughter as we have managed to keep fighting wars where there need be none.

Is this false ritual what Jesus was referring to when he told the women not to weep for him? The ritual can hide the truth. Jesus’ words refer the women to another part of the Torah, our old testament, where in Jeremiah it says,

You there! Call the mourning women! Let them come! Send for those who are best at it! let them come! Let them lose no time in raising the lament for us! Let our eyes rain tears, our eyelids run with weeping! Yes, the wail is to be heard from Zion, what ruin is ours, what utter shame!

Jeremiah 9:16,19

 

This is in the face of the punishment that God is to wreak on the Israelites for forsaking the law.The passage about calling on the mountains to fall on us is a reference to another scriptural passage. This one is from Hosea 10:8 warning the Israelites of the punishment God will mete out for their unfaithfulness. Perhaps Jesus is warning the Jews of what is to befall them after rejecting him as the Messiah.

Jesus is the green wood in the quote. He brought the completion of the covenant between God and man a new covenant. The Jews rejected him and stuck with the dry wood, the incomplete covenant. This would not be immediately obvious to the people. After the crucifixion the Jewish religion continued and does to this day. Christianity started small and grew slowly.

The message in Luke’s gospel is really one for us. He is warning us about adopting rituals which, though not bad in themselves, can hide the real message. What do I mean by that? Let’s look at ritual in our Christian lives. Going to mass on a Sunday is a good place to start.

When I was a boy (not really that long ago, surely) we were taught that the obligation was to assist at the sacrifice of the mass. That is a wee bit more than just being there. At the consecration we are witnessing something extraordinary. The bread and wine becomes the second person of the Trinity. Lights don’t flash. There is no booming voice from heaven. Never the less we come into the presence of Jesus, our saviour. This is impossible for us to understand fully. It requires our belief. How do we react to this?

Reactions vary. Some people talk through this part of the mass. Some read the parish bulletin. Some kneel and appear devout but might be thinking about something else. Some are praying in the presence of the Lord. I’m not making any judgements here. I’m just admitting that the ritual sometimes does not highlight the importance of the moment but can fool us (me included) into thinking we have got it right. If we are not offering ourselves with the bread and wine, if we are not joining in the sacrifice at the consecration then we are missing the point.

The rituals are good. They are the signposts that can keep us on the right track, alert us to something important. When we forget to recognise what the ritual is alerting us to then we have lost the plot. We are like the weeping women. The Pharisees were hot on ritual and you know what Jesus thought of them.

This is not about ‘going to communion’ and then carrying on with things as normal. This is our opportunity to accept Jesus into our lives and give that life to him in our sacrifice. We should be going out of church on a mission. We should be out to change the world, starting small, growing slowly. Changing ourselves and becoming an influence on others by our example.

In this station I have learned something Luke wanted to tell us about ritual. We must be able to recognise Jesus there and be alert to his presence in our lives.

 

Joseph McGrath

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