Women of Jerusalem
Text: Luke 21:23
The women of Jerusalem, the daughters of Jerusalem. There is nothing like being invited to speak on a mysterious text about which one knows nothing at all.
However, that never defeated any theologian. We are often accused of treading very lightly with the text.
So with apologies to the biblical scholars amongst you, I hope to take us on an imaginative journey rather than one that delves too far into scholarly treatises.
The reference to the women of Jerusalem, or the daughters of Jerusalem in Luke is fleeting. Jesus is on his way to the cross. Simon is carrying the cross. There were women following, beating their breasts and lamenting. There is controversy about the nature of these women, whether they were hostile, just payed or ritual mourners, or whether they were genuinely sympathetic. I am assuming here that they were anticipating death, and also signalling their identification with Jesus.
That these women are a sympathetic crowd is also revealed by the inter-textual link to the Song of Songs. There too the daughters of Jerusalem are the sympathetic and prescient witnesses, in that case to love.
We often think of the crowd following Jesus as homogeneous. We have all rehearsed Lenten liturgies and cried out Crucify Him. But there must have been a variety of responses. Some never lost the rapturous excitement about him that Palm Sunday represented, but were now afraid. Some stood silently weeping like these women. Some were mocking him. And still others, religious leaders perhaps, like Cardinal Pell today, looked at what was happening with disdain and disinterest, and without passion, sure that they were not implicated.
It is the women who are noted as identifying with Jesus.
What do we make of this puzzling interaction between Jesus as these women? and why really has this passage not been central to our theology making in the past?
When Jesus turns, and speaks to the women, his message is one of deep connection, but it is hardly comforting.
“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’
Of course we are so used to this story that we barely notice what this might do to so much systematic theology.
He is not saying, for instance, “don’t weep daughters because soon I will be risen and everything will be alright”. Or “Don’t weep because I am overcoming the powers of evil and in a few day’s time this will be complete.”
He doesn’t say, “just do the will of God and you will be safe, you will be happy, nothing bad will happen.”
He doesn’t say, “I am the ransom of God. The devil will now release his grip on all of you.”
And yet how we have clung in the past to exactly those sorts of theology, those sorts of memes. Just believe and all the grace of God’s will be yours. Just believe and you will be kept safe. Just believe and the flourishing of God, and health and wealth will be yours.
Are you sick? Faith will heal you. Are you afraid? Jesus will conquer your fears.
Jesus is putting the death knell on any kind of triumphalistic Christian faith. And any kind of transactional view of atonement. Whatever Jesus is doing in his death will continue in some way for the Women of Jerusalem and their children, and perhaps in us, perhaps especially if we identify with Jesus as the women did.
What was Jesus referring to? What tribulation? Surely as the Son of God, in a state of perfect communion with the Father, in the final hours of his life, Jesus could foresee the nature of human history, that it would continue to be characterised by tragedy.
If anything, in this brief encounter with the women of Jerusalem he is revealing the nature of reality. That evil really is of the utmost seriousness and that Jesus’ journey to death has opened up a curtain revealing how things are, unmasking the powers and principalities, the tragic thread that runs through all of life. The thread that is about to be pulled taut.
Now this might be the most depressing sermon you have heard this year, or even longer. But it is lent. And I expect you are all now thinking of all the other passages in the Bible that are quite different, and the other parts of this story: For the Bible of course has the wonders and beauty of creation, Spirit, Exodus from slavery, and salvation, covenant and grace, gift and joy, healings, transfiguration, and soon Resurrection and Pentecost, and the angels who say do not fear! We are also taught to pray each day for deliverance from evil. But we live also in a history which has already proved Jesus right: in which humans have not only put to death the Son of God, many of these women would have suffered through the Fall of Jerusalem. Persecution was a reign of terror followed by the Sack of Rome, pogroms of the middles ages, plague, war after war, and so on. Women have seen their children die to famine and in gas chambers in tsunamis, or on Mediterranean shores. Jesus spoke of future tribulation? We can only ponder at the shape and meaning of his words.
But the encounter with the women shows that the path of being a follower of Jesus is complicated. It is a path that embraces the suffering of God, even while longing for healing and love and glory and praying for deliverance. This is easy to say and it takes a life-time of reflection and prayer and other saints to work it out.
The image this passage gives us is entanglement. And shared suffering. And a window into a reality where evil must be overcome by suffering, not only the suffering of Jesus but of all of us. After all Paul also adds, mysteriously, that “he is completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Col 1:24)
The entanglement seems to go even further, to the natural world. For the sun went dark as Jesus died early in the day. This is a window which shows that evil is not trivial, and there is reason for us to ponder and sit with the foreboding of the Women of Jerusalem.
The dilemma is that none of us want to suffer. We put huge resources into the avoidance of suffering. At least we don’t want to suffer any longer than lent. We certainly don’t want our children to be victims of any of the peak historical moments or personal moments when the threads of tragedy are pulled taut. We expect, especially in the West, that our sufferings might be measured and restrained. And although we are told to count the cost of becoming Christians we are also afraid that too much talk of suffering will put off the young, and those who might otherwise join us.
And this is where I find the extra-textual echoes from recent literature so potent.
It is one of the paradoxes of the church in this age, that the church is dying, while outside the church in fantasy and sci-fi literature the grand narrative of a battle between good and evil is alive and well and popular. You probably know young people for whom these stories are addictive but who are skeptical to the core when it comes to Christian faith. My children were raised on Harry Potter and after that came the movies, over a span of several decades. Before Harry Potter there was Narnia, and Tolkien and many others. There is often at the heart of the story a prophet or seer who can see the future. There are always spiritually sensitive people who can see what others don’t see.
And I want to present today another extra-textual echo with the short play Murder in the Cathedral by TS Eliot. Eliot’s women’s chorus, We are the Women of Canterbury is stunning in its echoes with the Women or Daughters of Jerusalem in the gospel. If the women of Jerusalem could talk, surely they would speak like the women of Canterbury?
This play was written and first performed in 1935, the women in this chorus are also anticipating death. They await the arrival from France of their archbishop, Thomas A Becket in the late 12th century. Thomas had been a protégé of the king, but on being made archbishop he became an ascetic, and a thorn in the king’s side, a situation paralleled today by Archbishop Romero of El Salvador. The king by tradition, said “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest.” Four knights took up the challenge. The women’s foreboding frames the dialogue. Because the play was a product of the 1930s the women’s chorus especially, was also prescient, anticipating the evil of the holocaust and war. A poem that resonates with the Daughters of Jerusalem also of course resonates with us, as we exist in perilous times. Eliot portrays a somber view of human history and its capacity for evil.
Eliot’s chorus says:
We the women of Canterbury
We do not wish anything to happen
Seven years we have lived quietly
Succeeding in avoiding notice
Living and partly living
There have been oppression and luxury
There have been poverty and license
Yet we have gone on living
Living and partly living
Like the women of Jerusalem, they are prescient, not only that the archbishop will be murdered, but that all their lives will now be uprooted, changed, taken into a different sphere.
But now a great fear is upon us, they say
A fear not of one but of many
A fear like birth and death,
We are afraid in a fear which we cannot know, which we cannot face, which none understands
….Oh Thomas, Archbishop, leave us, leave us …and set sail for France.
The women also link the suffering of nature with the evil of assassination. The women are witnesses to the hidden interconnections:
We the Women of Canterbury…
We did not wish anything to happen
We understood the private catastrophe
The personal loss, the general misery, living and partly living
The terror by night that ends in daily action
The terror by day that ends in sleep
But the talk in the market-place, the hand on the broom,
The night-time heaping of the ashes the fuel laid on the fire at daybreak
These acts marked a limit to our suffering.
Every horror had its definition
Every story had a kind of end
In life there is not time to grieve long
But this, this is out of life , this is out of time,
An instant eternity of evil and wrong.
We are soiled by a filth that we cannot clean, united to a supernatural vermin
Its not we alone, it is not the house, it is not the city that is defiled,
But the world that is wholly foul
Clean the air, clean the sky wash the wind shake the stone from the stone
Take the skin from the arm
Take the muscle from the bone and wash them.
Wash the stone wash the bone, wash the brain, wash the soul, wash them, wash them!
“We did not wish anything to happen.” They are used to grief that ends, that doesn’t become a time when one would wish that the hills will fall upon us. The horror and suffering Jesus speaks of is an untamed evil, one without restraint, an eternity of evil and wrong. Without limit to suffering. This is also the horror the women of Canterbury first anticipate and then witness. They are without authority and without power, but they do see the fabric of good and evil, and the way it becomes at a certain point, inevitable. Whether it is the assassination of a bishop, the death of the Son of God, the out workings of fascism, or the shadow of nuclear war. They also see very vividly the involvement of nature, also present in the gospels with hints of unnatural darkness, but often overlooked. When Jesus died we hear in other gospels as well that there was darkness, storms and an earthquake. The women of Canterbury sense the connection between huge evil and the response of nature. They want to clean the air, clean the water. All is defiled.
TS Eliot’s chorus is in some ways an extended interpretation of Luke 23 as the martyrdom of Thomas a Beckett is an allegory of the death of Christ. One response is that suffering shares in the suffering of Christ and is redemptive. Although we should always seek to avoid suffering, seeking healing and joy, suffering when it comes can have meaning, even while it threatens to destroy all meaning. Our suffering like that of the son of God, can be understood as redemptive, as related to love.
There are consequences to all of this, in many of the pressing ethical issues of the day. There are repercussions for how we view human nature. And the women of Jerusalem and Jesus’ response to them leave us with many questions.
In the meantime every sermon has to end, and I thought it best to leave the last word to the last chorus of Eliot which will follow.