Bible Study for June

When we produced the meditation “Women of the Cross” for Good Friday we remarked on how many women were witnesses to the crucifixion. Among them were the group referred to as “the Women of Jerusalem”. Other evangelists refer to bystanders being present, but it is Luke who has a discourse Jesus has with the women in that crowd..

‘And there followed him a great multitude of the people, and of women who bewailed and lamented him. But Jesus turning to them said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck!’ 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?”’

In this passage from Luke 23. 28-31, the weeping and wailing women anticipate the death to come and the funeral that should follow it. It is probably based on the mourning of Jerusalem in Zechariah 12. 10-14. Luke uses it to introduce Jesus’ last words before the crucifixion. Words about a future (undefined) catastrophe. A time when the barren would be blessed (they were reviled by the Jewish society of his day). A time when the growing anger of the occupying power would overwhelm Jerusalem in a similar way to a forest fire consuming both dry and wet wood. Luke may also have been telling his audience years after the event that the fall of Jerusalem was a consequence of their rejection of Christ.

In an earlier month of this series we talked about women taking an artistic and musical part in major Jewish festivals. It may have been that the women of Jerusalem in the crowd were acting in this kind of way. They certainly were not ‘rent a crowd’. They might be seen more in the role of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, or the chorus in a Wagnerian opera or an operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. In each genre the ‘chorus’ enabled to story to be told – they did more than echo the main characters, they led the main characters on to the next stage of the play or opera.

 At the best of times it is difficult for us to appreciate the scene described by Luke, although it is not so long ago that people in this country attended public executions or people in France watched ‘madam guillotine’ at work! In the current lock-down it is anathema. Sporting stadia and concert venues are eerily empty, shopping arcades are silent, and even ‘crowds’ at funerals are no bigger than a handful of close relatives. Whatever easing there might be in current restrictions it will be some time before we can go back to being in a mass gathering in a football ground, a concert hall, or church.

There have been harrowing accounts of people being turned away from crematoria or having to choose who in an extended family should be on the small attendance list. It makes me ask, “have you ever been at a funeral and wondered ‘why are they here?’ or ‘how did they get to know the deceased?’” I know that I have. The story also led me to think of how different cultures and customs about death and funerals are across the world.

To illustrate the point and to end on a slightly lighter note I draw your attention to the practice in parts of the United States to visit a funeral ‘home’ for a viewing the deceased before the funeral. Such events are well described by the author Janet Evanovich in a series of ‘light whodunnits’. As an ongoing side plot in the Stephanie Plum  novels, the heroine’s grandmother wants to be taken to all the viewings she can get to. She wants to be seen there, but she also wants to see who else is there and to gauge what kind of ‘spread’ the family have laid on for the viewers. It makes me wonder if Stephanie’s grandmother stands in the tradition of the daughters of Jerusalem. It also makes me wonder if, when we return at anything like the ‘normal’ we used to know we will ever see such large crowds ‘viewing’ funerals in which we join!

Revd Preb Graham Earney

Books used in preparation of this piece: Gospel of Luke; Peake’s Bible Commentary; St. Luke by G.B.Caird; and the Stephanie Plum Novels of Janet Evanovich