This was not the way Sunday morning was supposed to begin—the empty-pit feeling in the stomach, the sweat beading on the brow, the pulse in the ears, and tunnel vision. Sundays are a day of promise, anticipation, and peace, notwithstanding the multiple times we have to ask, “Have you brushed your teeth yet?” Sundays are the Lord’s Day, a celebration of the power of grace over sin and death.
But on Sunday, February 15, 2015, I stared at my smartphone, and the headline stared back—“ISIS Video Appears to Show Beheadings of Egyptian Coptic Christians in Libya.” My wife saw the look on my face, reached for the phone, and covered her mouth. Silence settled between us. We held our breath.
It was a sunny day, above freezing, as I recall. But at our house of worship in the wake of that news, an icy, inky blackness settled over our tiny congregation. We gathered in solemn assembly and lamented the loss of the 21 brothers who held fast to the cross of Christ, even as their souls slid into eternity. We called them martyrs, choked back tears, and thanked God for the gift of their unwavering testimony. How beautiful indeed are those who do not shrink from death to proclaim the good news.
I did not know these 21 men, yet a deep grief settled over me. It was, perhaps, my first experience with true Spirit-led lamentation. Though I was acquainted with the concept in theory and even had a passing familiarity with the corpus of lamentations contained within Scripture, I’d somehow bypassed feeling the weight of these kinds of sorrows. And now, just over one year later, I’m ashamed to admit that it took these grisly slayings to lead me into a deeper practice and understanding of the spiritual value of lamentation.
In today’s religious milieu, there are some who avoid the notion of grief. They paint smiling faces on every life circumstance, promising that positivity is next to godliness and happiness is a byproduct of both. God wants you to have your best life. To be successful. To enjoy the fruits of your labor. It’s a beautiful sentiment—even if naïve to the broken facts of this busted world—but its scriptural foundation is thin. In fact, it is an anti-Christ message, one that has no basis in the life of our Jesus, the ultimate suffering servant.
God wants you to have your best life. It’s a beautiful sentiment—even if naïve to the broken facts of this busted world—but its scriptural foundation is thin.
Lament is a core tenet of Christian theology. Christ, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped (Phil. 2:6). Instead, He humbled Himself and experienced birth, death, and the full panoply of human emotions. And though He entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before His crucifixion to the praise of jubilant throngs, He saw through the crowds and lamented the current state of affairs.
It was the week of His crucifixion, and the scribes and Pharisees approached Jesus, asking entrapping questions, murder in their hearts. Jesus, fully man and fully God, could have shamed them with a single word, could have knocked them from their high horses, stricken them blind and obliterated them. Instead, He entered into the human experience of lamentation: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people … Woe to you, blind guides” (Matt. 23:13, Matt. 23:16).
“Woe … woe … woe … woe ...” (Matt. 23:23; Matt 23:25; Matt 23:27; Matt 23:29).
I’ve read these words of Jesus countless times, and they hang heavy. And though there is a sense in which Jesus is pronouncing judgment over the religious leaders of the day, His deep lamentation over the hardness of their hearts is palpable. “Woe,” He says—a qualitative measurement of His own deep sorrow: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling! Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!” (Matt. 23:37-38).
Even Jesus—knowing that the great gospel ending of the resurrection was the capstone of the world’s greatest story—continued His march to Friday, deep sorrow shut up in His bones.
See our Christ lamenting the heartsickness that misleads the people and which will lead to His own death?
And as Jesus leaves this confrontation with the religious leaders, He continues to carry heartfelt woe into the Passion Week. He speaks to the disciples about the coming tribulation, the division that will occur in His name, and the destruction of the temple (Matt. 24:1-28). Can you hear the weight of lamentation, the heaviness in His words? Even Jesus—knowing that the great gospel ending of the resurrection was the capstone of the world’s greatest story—continued His march to Friday, deep sorrow shut up in His bones.
There is Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the eve of the great reckoning. He is on the razor’s edge, the dividing line of history. His disciples have followed Him to the garden of prayer, and Christ says, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me” (Matt. 26:38). You might see His tears, His fear and lamentation as He prays, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from Me” (Matt 26:39). If there is anything the week of Christ’s Passion teaches us, it’s that Jesus did not bypass lamentation in order to attain the glory of God. Instead, He stepped into the pain and sorrow of the human experience, lamentation in His heart and on His lips.
It’s Easter, a season ultimately marked by resurrection joy and glorious hymns of victory. And though it might be tempting to ignore the sorrows of earth—the plight of the people led astray, persecuted, or martyred—let’s emulate our Christ. Sit and soak in the weight of this broken world and offer prayers born from deep lamentation. After all, it’s only in walking through this kind of woe that we truly experience the fullness of Christ’s life and the joy of Resurrection Sunday.
Illustration by Tim McDonagh