Weeping Women

The pew I occupy on a daily basis is very close to the eighth station of the Cross: “the women of Jerusalem weep over Jesus.” This proximity occasions my reflecting on it more than on the other stations. It has become, in a manner of speaking, my station, so let me presume to tell you about it as we approach the Sacred Triduum.

The episode is related only in Saint Luke’s Gospel:

“And there followed him a great multitude of people, and of women, who bewailed and lamented him. But Jesus turning to them, said: Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not over me; but weep for yourselves, and for your children. For behold, the days shall come, wherein they will say: Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that have not borne, and the paps that have not given suck. Then shall they begin to say to the mountains: Fall upon us; and to the hills: Cover us. For if in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry?” (Luke 23:27-31)

In this mystery, Our Lord says things that are profoundly counterintuitive for a man faced with crying women. At first blush, we might think that Jesus would want to console these women, whose weeping was, after all, for Him. We might expect Him to say that all will be well, since His Father’s will is being accomplished, and God’s wrath is being appeased. We might expect Him to assuage their sorrow and encourage them to have confidence in the eventual triumph of good that will happen with the Resurrection. The salvation of the world is, after all, being accomplished!

But He does nothing of the sort. Instead, He tells them not to weep for Him, but to weep for themselves and their children. Why? Because the days will come when the terrible prophesy of Osee (10:8) will be realized among them. In that passage, Osee (Hosea) is looking ahead to the punishments on the Northern Kingdom for their idolatry. God’s just punishments will make the children of Israel cry out: “and they shall say to the mountains: Cover us; and to the hills: Fall upon us!” (Osee 10:8) This prophesy was fulfilled in the eighth century B.C., when the Assyrians took the northern tribes captive. Here, Jesus is applying the words to what remains of the Southern Kingdom, based in Jerusalem, and He is clearly speaking of the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus’ invading Roman army in the year 70 A.D.

So, instead of accepting their sympathy or giving them consolation, Our Lord tells these weeping women of bad things yet to happen, not only to them, but also to their children.

He concludes with a rhetorical question: “For if in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry?” Destructive forces, such as fire, that will not spare a green tree will surely not spare a dry one. Jesus, who is sometimes seen as the green tree, is here struck by the force of divine justice in His Passion. Yet how much greater will be the calamity when the inhabitants of Jerusalem have filled up the measure of their fathers (cf. Matt. 23:32) — that is, when they have contracted such a severe debt of divine retribution for their crimes and impenitence? If the inhabitants of Jerusalem can be so wicked as to resort to killing an innocent man during this Messianic time of blessings and grace, how much worse will things be when God’s wrath is turned on the Holy City, that “dry wood” now perfectly seasoned by its own sins to be burned?

Those acquainted with the terrors of the Destruction of Jerusalem — including Jewish civil war compounding the violence of a Roman siege, including also hunger and thirst, driving some even to the crime of cannibalism — will understand just how bad that dry wood will be. And those terrors included also literal fire. Josephus testifies that, although Titus wanted to spare the Temple, “God had, for certain, long ago doomed it to the fire;… and the flames were kindled by the Jews themselves, when that fatal day came” (Jos., De Bello Jud. , vi. 4.).

In his Harmonized Exposition of the Four Gospels (Vol. 4, pg. 453), Father A.E. Breen aptly observes, “It is strange indeed that in many of our churches this station of the cross is described as the point where ‘Jesus consoles the daughters of Jerusalem.’ It is just the opposite of a consolation: it is a woe more terrible than any found in Jeremiah, the prophet of the wrath of God.”

Why this terrible warning to a group of women who are lamenting His suffering? Does this not seem cruel, as if to make those who seek to compassionate Him suffer more?

Before I reply to that question directly, let me comment on the form of address Jesus uses for these women. He calls them “daughters of Jerusalem,” a title that is found in such dramatically different Old-Testament texts as the Canticle of Canticles and the Lamentations of Jeremias. In the Canticle, the daughters of Jerusalem are witnesses of the love affair between the Bride (the Church) and the Bridegroom (Christ); in the Lamentations, the daughter (singular) represents the Holy City itself, ravaged by the Babylonians, who bring her children into captivity: “To what shall I compare thee? or to what shall I liken thee, O daughter of Jerusalem? to what shall I equal thee, that I may comfort thee, O virgin daughter of Sion? for great as the sea is thy destruction: who shall heal thee?” (Lam. 2:13).

Curiously, these “Daughters of Jerusalem” that Our Lord spoke to are both the witnesses of Christ’s espousals to His Church and those whose children are threatened with yet another destruction of Jerusalem, worse than that of the Babylonians. If these women are believers, they form part of the mystical Bride of Christ, the Church. Further, according to the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, “In addressing this to the faithful ‘Daughers of Jerusalem’ (Lk 23:28), he may be identifying them with the righteous ‘daughters’ of the city who will escape the catastrophe by the mercy of God and become a source of consolation for others (Ezek 14:22).”

This is what I see at work here. Jesus is actually telling these Christian daughters of Jerusalem the harsh truth, but He is at the same time directing their weeping to another purpose. Weeping is not a bad thing, even though it is often caused by misery. In Judges chapter twenty-one we find an instance of prayerful weeping being answered, when the tribe of Benjamin is spared from destruction. In Joel 2:16-20, the prayerful weeping of the priests leads to Israel being delivered from its enemies. And here is King David: “Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity: for the Lord hath heard the voice of my weeping. The Lord hath heard my supplication: the Lord hath received my prayer” (Psalm 6:9-10).

During the protracted seige of Jerusalem — possibly during the interval between Vespasian’s and Titus’ management of the horrible campaign — the Christian faithful followed the signs that Jesus mentioned in Luke 19 and in His lengthy and vivid discourse in Matthew 24. Vespasian had cast a trench about Jerusalem, and compassed it round (Luke 19:43), but then he was recalled to Rome to become Emperor. Titus came later to lead the campaign. According to Dom Guéranger, the Christians, having seen the prophesies fulfilled, escaped during this interval.

The Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea informs us of what happened:

“But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella. And when those that believed in Christ had come there from Jerusalem, then, as if the royal city of the Jews and the whole land of Judea were entirely destitute of holy men, the judgment of God at length overtook those who had committed such outrages against Christ and his apostles, and totally destroyed that generation of impious men.” (Eusebius, History of the Church 3, 5; alternative translation found here).

The little infants and toddlers often portrayed in the eighth station of the Cross would be almost forty years old — a Biblical generation — at the time of these terrible events. We may well imagine that among those gathered in Pella during and after Jerusalem’s horrible destruction were these thirty-somethings whose mothers had prayed and wept for themselves and for their children, having been admonished to do so at the eighth station of the Cross — my station.