I just ran across the beautiful Lenten song “When Jesus Wept” just within the past week, although it has been garnering more attention in Catholic circles in recent years (my sons tell me they sang it in choir at their faithful Catholic college). It was published in 1770 by American composer William Billings. The melody is quite simple, but when sung as a four part round, as it is here, it takes on a surprising depth and power.
The words are also simple:
When Jesus wept, the falling tear
in mercy flowed beyond all bound.
When Jesus groaned, a trembling fear
seized all the guilty world around.
The song takes its inspiration from John 11:35, the shortest verse in the Bible. It reads, in full: “Jesus Wept.” Jesus has just arrived at Bethany, and he has learned that Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, has died and been buried.
We could fill pages with discussion of the implications of this brief verse. I’ll limit myself to one observation. It has always struck me that Jesus knows that, in just a few minutes, he will raise Lazarus from the dead and restore him to his sisters. Nevertheless, he weeps, he cries real tears and feels real sorrow. He experiences the fullness of human sorrow, just as he will soon experience real and excruciating pain and anguish on The Cross. As Scripture reminds us, “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)
“When Jesus Wept” nicely captures both the human reality of Christ’s sorrow, and its divine implications. The tears falling from the flesh and blood eyes of Jesus “in mercy flowed beyond all bound,” his human groan of sorrow seizes “All the guilty world around.” In like manner, the breaking of his mortal body on The Cross will be the means by which he eternally conquers Death itself. That’s not a bad thing to keep in mind as we take on the austerities of Lent, ans as we encounter suffering and temptation in our own lives.
The classical vocal ensemble Quire Cleveland sings “When Jesus Wept” in the video below. It was recorded live at St. Peter’s Church in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, April 6, 2014. The painting in the video is “Jesus Wept” by the French artist James Tissot. It is one of 365 watercolors illustrating the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus that Tissot made in the 1880s and 1890s following the artist’s late-in-life reversion to Catholicism.