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“Jesus wept: and no wonder by Christ!”

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“Jesus wept” – the shortest verse in the Bible (John 11:35) and the subject of a short piece on by Thomas Dixon on Umberto Eco and John Donne in the History of Emotions blog.

The post makes the point that “Donne is one of a very few sermon writers to discuss Christ’s tears”, though I suppose it depends what one means by “very few”. It is mentioned in the sermons of William Burton, Daniel Price, Thomas Jackson, William Ford, Samuel Smith, Gilbert Primrose and James Mabbe’s translation of Fonseca’s sermons – all published in Donne’s lifetime – and by  Samuel Otes, Thomas Adams, Daniel Featley, Peter Hausted, Anthony Faringdon and William Haughton and maybe a few others, all published prior to 1650. And there are other works – treatises, etc. – that discourse on the theme.

Still, it is, as Dixon says, a text one might have expected to have invited more exegesis, given the propensity of the age for emphasizing the less cheerful aspects of life, as evinced, for example, by the following:

As for laughter , it may be vsed: otherwise God would neuer haue giuen that power and faculty vnto man: but the vse of it must be both moderate and seldome, as sorrowe for our sinnes is to be plentifull and often. This we may learne in Christs example, of whome wee reade that hee wept three times, at the destruction of Ierusalem, at the raising of Lazarus, and in his agonie: but we neuer read that he laughed . And specially remember the saying of Chry∣sostome. Si risus in Ecclesia diaboli opus est, that is, to mooue laughter in the Church, is the worke of the deuill. (William Perkins, A golden chaine, 728-9)

Mercifully for their sanity, though, it seems the early moderns not only didn’t get overly bothered about Jesus weeping. but even, on occasion, rejected Chrysostom’s take on the whole thing:

Chrysostome indeede (for I will conceale nothing that may seeme ought to this purpose) speaking in generall tearmes saith, that Play or game is not of God but of the Deuill: and that we reade that Christwept oft, but neuer that he laughed, or so much as once smiled: yea that none of the Saints in Scripture are reported euer to haue laughed,saueSara onely,who is presently thereupon also checked for it. Which yet, saith that reuerend Father, I speake not to abandon laughter, but to bannish loosenesse.

Thus Chrysostome: which yet is not all out sound or true neither: For did not Abraham laugh too as well as Sara? and yet is he not taxed nor rebuked for so doing; nor indeed was Sara simply rebuked for laughing, but for doubting, yea if I may say so, for mocking: Abrahams laughter, as the Auncients haue well obserued, proceeded from ioy, Saraes sa∣uoured of distrust. (Thomas Gataker, Of the nature and vse of lots a treatise historicall and theologicall, 1619, pp. 215-6).

Of course, this is Umberto Eco territory, and he builds his tale on the spiritual legitimacy of laughter and question of whether, in fact, Christ did ever laugh. Dixon’s got a few other points to make; Jesus may have wept, but God is not on record as having done so, and in general tears were (and to some extent still are) perceived as “womanish”. All in all, a very good post on the early modern history of the emotions!

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