In the third of our series of Lenten Sermon’s on Nigel Pugh’s Stations of the Cross, former Embrace the Middle East Trustee, Canon Daniel Burton looked at Women of Jerusalem.
Canon Burton opened by quoting words from the Gospel of Luke:
A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, ‘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.” For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’ Luke 23.27-31
These verses provide the backdrop for what we know as the eighth of the traditional fourteen stations of the cross. Known variously as Jesus rebukes the women of Jerusalem, Jesus comforts the women of Jerusalem, and the women of Jerusalem weep for our Lord, this is one of the most mysterious of the traditional stations.
Before we examine what might have been going on here and try to find some resonances with our own reality, let us meditate for a few moments on Nigel Robert Pugh’s stunning representation of this biblical scene, for art can often illuminate the written word. Having only seen these pictures on the internet, I was looking forward to seeing the actual work of art for real. It is a painting of astounding contrasts:
- The shrouded women contrasted with the semi naked Christ
- The gigantic women contrasted with the diminutive Christ, inverting the perspective of the eye
- The conspiring women contrasted with the isolated Christ
- The inscrutable women contrasted with the vulnerable Christ
- The self-contained women contrasted with the outwardly-focussed Christ, pointing the women to something beyond themselves
- The safe women contrasted with the dangerous Christ
- The living women contrasted with the dying Christ
If we take the word “contrast” as the lens through which we view this scene, we see that Nigel Robert Pugh has identified something integral to understanding this scene, and the biblical text reveals an additional contrast:
- The noisy wailing and weeping women contrasted with the silent Christ
What is going on here? Well, let’s deal with the conundrum of the title of this station. Surely what is going on here is a Rebuke, not a Consolation. These women were professional mourners who gathered on the streets of Jerusalem every time there was a spectacle or a riot or an execution. There are many references to this cultural peculiarity in the pages of the bible. Jeremiah 9.17-18 reads:
Thus says the Lord of hosts:
Consider, and call for the mourning-women to come;
send for the skilled women to come;
let them quickly raise a dirge over us,
so that our eyes may run down with tears,
and our eyelids flow with water.
That is exactly what was going on. In a demonstrative culture where outward show denoted inward emotion, it was essential that every funeral, every tragedy, every execution, should be accompanied by wailing and weeping of the most extreme kind. One can argue that these professional mourners provided a cathartic function in that their manufactured grief released the genuine emotion of the real mourners, for thus it must have operated on countless occasions. But the point about the women’s grief is that it is indiscriminate and it is superficial. They had mourned the previous day for some other unfortunates; they were mourning now as much for the two criminals as for Our Lord; and they would be mourning the following day for the next batch of Roman victims, the name of the Nazarene already forgotten. I say again that their grief was indiscriminate and it was superficial.
Contrast that (contrast again!) with Jesus. He has spent his ministry unmasking the superficial in life and in religion; he has spent his ministry living and pointing to that which is authentic and integral and real. Of course he rebuked them! Consoled them? Absolutely not! Unless one means console in the sense in which Job was consoled by his comforters – in other words not at all. Jesus REBUKED the women of Jerusalem. He was on the way to his death; he had been betrayed; he had been abandoned; he had been tortured; he had been abused and manipulated by Jewish and Roman authorities; and worse was still to come. And in this state, in this condition, in this critical moment he encounters a group of screaming actors, indiscriminate and superficial – everything that he was not. “If you knew what was coming; if you knew what Jerusalem had rejected when it rejected me; you wouldn’t be pretending to weep for me; you would be weeping for yourselves and your children; indeed there will come a time in your life when you will regret that you ever gave birth to children.”
These women had been truly and well rebuked, and one can imagine that their wailing and weeping ceased, embarrassed silence replacing their hysterical performance.
I was in Jerusalem just last month with a group of pilgrims and as always we walked the Via Dolorosa. Never a day goes by without countless visitors doing the same. The way of sorrows, the way of the cross, never goes out of fashion. And surely this is not only because it offers a unique opportunity to identify with Our Lord on his most important journey, but also because it speaks so much of suffering and in countless ways successive generations are able to link their contemporary suffering with that of the saviour. Indeed it is impossible to contemplate that the stations of the cross will ever go out of fashion, because it is impossible to imagine a world without suffering. But I want to suggest to you that the stations of the cross have a particular resonance for the women of the Holy Land – both Arab and Jew – for this enigmatic scene of Jesus rebuking the women of Jerusalem is at its heart a Palestinian story, and the same blood runs through the veins of the 21st century women as through the biblical women.
There is an enormous crime being perpetrated in the Holy Land today: it is the systematic theft of Palestinian land by the Israeli government who have constructed their Wall or Separation Barrier not on the internationally recognised border of 1967 but along an arbitrary and meandering route that divides ancient communities, severs ancient roads, and allocates sparse resources to the victors. This and the daily expansion of illegal settlements in the Palestinian territories gives the lie to the oft quoted commitment to a two state solution, for such a solution is now impossible. This in its turn creates what is in many ways a greater crime and that is the strangulation of hope, a rare commodity in the Holy Land today.
In the resistance to the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, the descendants of the women of Jerusalem continue to play a pivotal and heroic role. Two groups of Israeli and Palestinian women have come together to form “Jerusalem Link” which includes the Palestinian branch, the Jerusalem Centre for Women, and the Israeli branch, Bat Shalom. Together they promote a joint vision of a just peace, democracy, human rights, and women’s leadership. Women in Black began witnessing against the occupation in January 1988 and continue to this day, every Friday in Jerusalem and in other towns in Israel, always at the same time and at the same locations, dressed in black and holding up black signs in the shape of a hand saying “Stop the occupation” written in white lettering in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Machsom Watch was set up in January 2001 in response to human rights abuses of Palestinians at the checkpoints in the occupied territories.
These women are outstanding human beings, people of integrity, authenticity, empathy and courage. Among them there is no one of greater moral stature than the Palestinian Christian polymath, Hanan Ashrawi. As I draw things to a close, I am going to read a poem of hers which reminds us that Jewish and Palestinian women have far more that unites them than divides them:
Women make things grow:
Sometimes like the crocus,
surprised by rain,
emerging fully grown from the belly of the earth;
Others like the palm tree with its promise postponed,
rising in a slow deliberate spiral to the sky…
Women make things smooth
to the touch,
like the kneading of leavened bread
at the dawn of hunger;
And coarse like the brush of a homespun coat
on careworn shoulders and bare arms
barely touching on the night of deportation.
Women make things cold sharp and hard
like a legal argument thrust before the threat of search and detention;
Or warm and gentle like
justice in a poem,
like the suggestion of the image of freedom
as a warm bath, and a long soak,
in an undemolished home.
Women make things
And as we, in separate worlds,
braid our daughters’ hair in the morning,
you and I,
each humming to herself,
and hears the tune of the other.
I do not believe that the wailing and weeping women of Jerusalem referred to in Luke chapter 23 were capable of hearing “the tune of the other” and for this they were rebuked by Jesus. Nevertheless their awkward encounter with Our Lord has often led Christians to reflect that a world without empathy is indeed a foretaste of hell. Nigel Robert Pugh’s interpretation has shed new light on this scene, not least by evoking the many contrasts of the eighth station of the cross. As we continue our Lenten journey, may we renew our efforts to “hear the tune of the other”; and may we never cease to pray for the kindling of hope in the Holy Land that one day Palestinian and Israeli women, men and children will live in freedom, justice and peace.