I’d like to take a look at one verse from the Gospel of John that I suspect most people pass quickly over, since it doesn’t seem to say a lot. It’s just a transitional verse that gives us some information that apparently has little bearing on the rest of the Gospel. But I have often thought about it during the days before celebrating the Passion of Jesus. Here it is:
“Jesus therefore no longer went about openly among the Jews, but went from there to the country near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim; and there he stayed with the disciples” (Jn. 11:54). Jesus had recently raised Lazarus from the dead and within a very short time He would be going to his own death. So He went out toward the wilderness where no one would approach Him, and He took his best friends with Him. What was He thinking about in those days? The whole of his earthly life was about to come to its climax. He had won the acclaim of many people through the raising of Lazarus, but his mission was not thus fulfilled. “For he himself knew what was in man” (Jn. 2:25), that is, He knew the human heart, and that soon many of them would be turned bitterly against Him. No, He didn’t go to Ephraim to rest on his laurels; He went to contemplate his Passion and to prepare his heart for the definitive, titanic confrontation between good and evil, life and death, the power of light and the power of darkness.
I would guess that this was also a time of deep emotion. When He went to confront death at the tomb of Lazarus (this was only a sign of what He would do at his own resurrection), He was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (11:33). Then, we come across the shortest verse in the Bible, but one of the most moving: “Jesus wept” (v. 35). What can this mean? Some people seem a little uncomfortable with that. They say, well, Jesus was God, and He knew He was about to raise his friend; why then did He weep? Others might counter that He was also man, and this belongs to being man. Both of these approaches have some truth to them, but I think they don’t quite get to the heart of the matter.
I take it as a given that Jesus is true God and true man, so I don’t need to agonize over this issue like some of our liturgical texts do (they repeatedly say things like: “You asked where Lazarus was laid, even though as God you already knew.” OK, we get the anti-Arian polemic, but it sounds a little silly). Another text is perhaps an anti-Monophysite one: “weeping in accordance with the law of nature,” Jesus proved the reality of his human nature. But I think when Jesus wept it was an expression of both his divine and human natures. The divine Person of the Son expressed his love and compassion through his human tears. Sure, He knew He was going to raise Lazarus, but God is not so detached from human sorrow and pain that He simply observes it and then coolly says, “I can fix that.” No, before He “fixes” anything, He enters into it, He feels it. Jesus, approaching the ultimate sacrifice of his own life, found Himself in the midst of a sea of human grief and pain, as Lazarus’ family and friends wept over his death. Perhaps He was deeply moved at this microcosm of the whole human condition, so deeply wounded, so full of suffering and sorrow, so susceptible to the pain of loss and tragedy. He would raise Lazarus, but He wouldn’t do it without first sharing the pain of the mourners.
Yet there is more than empathy for others here. The evangelist tells us that Jesus Himself loved Lazarus. If his tears were authentic (and how could they not be?) then like all other true weeping He must have felt within Himself that irrepressible energy of sorrow that washes over the heart like a mighty ocean wave, that must break the dam of rational composure and burst forth in hot tears. Jesus wept.
So now He is staying in Ephraim, contemplating all these things, looking ahead to the days to come. It’s a quiet time: no preaching, no working of miracles, just a few intimate conversations with his disciples (how we might wish to know what He told them in those secret moments!). He rested, He renewed his strength and determination to do the Father’s will. Perhaps He even dreaded somewhat the coming events, which drew closer with every sunrise. His hour had just about come.
In these first few days of Holy Week, we ought to go to Ephraim to be with the Lord. We know that He calls us to go with Him to the Upper Room, to Gethsemane and Golgotha, and eventually to stand, wonder-struck, at the Empty Tomb. But do we ever stop to think that He might be calling us to go with Him to Ephraim as well? In the Byzantine tradition, these first three days of Holy Week are called the “days of the Bridegroom.” They are the last days the Bridegroom will be with us, before He is taken away. The Gospel reading at the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts on Holy Tuesday includes the parable of the ten virgins awaiting the coming of the Bridegroom. So we are expected to keep vigil, to watch and wait. For this we go to Ephraim, to contemplate quietly the coming events which shake the foundation of the world.
Let us spend these days in prayer, in reflection, in intimate conversation with Him who has given his life for us, and who is mystically and sacramentally present with us as we celebrate our salvation in the liturgical re-presentation of his mighty works. He loves us as much as He loved his first disciples. He would like to spend some quiet time with us as we prepare to enter into his Passion and Resurrection. Let us go to Ephraim with Him and stay there for a while, and let us profess our love for Him. For soon the betrayer will be at hand…