There are many legends clustering round this portion of our Lord's history.
It is narrated, for example, that, when the divine Sufferer, burdened with the cross, was creeping along feebly and slowly, He leaned against the door of a house which stood in the way, when the occupier, striking a blow, commanded Him to hurry on; to which the Lord, turning to His assailant, replied, |Thou shall go on and never stop till I come again;| and to this day, unable to find either rest or death, the miserable man still posts over the earth, and shall continue doing so until the Lord's return. This is the legend of the Wandering Jew, which assumed many forms in the lore of other days and still plays a somewhat prominent part in literature. It is, I suppose, a fantastic representation, in the person of an individual, of the tragic fate of the Jewish race, which, since the day when it laid violent hands on the Son of God, has had no rest for the sole of its foot.
To another story of the Via Dolorosa as distinguished a place has been given in art as to the legend of the Wandering Jew in literature. Veronica, a lady in Jerusalem, seeing Christ, as He passed by, sinking beneath His burden, came out of her house and with a towel washed away the blood and perspiration from His face. And lo! when she examined the napkin with which the charitable act had been performed, it bore a perfect likeness of the Man of Sorrows. Some of the greatest painters have reproduced this scene, and it may be understood as teaching the lesson that even the commonest things in life, when employed in acts of mercy, are stamped with the image and superscription of Christ.
In Roman Catholic churches there may generally be seen round the walls a series of about a dozen pictures, taken from this part of our Lord's life. They are denominated the Stations of the Cross, because the worshippers, going round, stop to look and meditate on the different scenes. In Catholic countries the same idea is sometimes carried out on a more imposing scale. On a knoll or hill in the neighbourhood of a town three lofty crosses stand; the road to them through the town is called Via Calvarii, and at intervals along the way the scenes of our Lord's sad journey are represented by large frescoes or bas-reliefs.
But we really know for certain of only two incidents of the Via Dolorosa -- that in which our Lord was relieved of His cross by Simon the Cyrenian and that, which we are now to consider, of the sympathetic daughters of Jerusalem.
The reader of the history of our Lord in its last stages is sated with horrors. In some of the scenes through which we have recently accompanied Him we have seemed to be among demons rather than men. The mind longs for something to relieve the monstrous spectacles of fanatic hate and cold-blooded cruelty. Hence this scene is most welcome, in which a blink of sunshine falls on the path of woe, and we are assured that we need not lose faith in the human heart.
It was, indeed, a surprising demonstration. It would hardly have been credited, had it not there been made manifest, that Jesus had so strong a hold upon any section of the population of Jerusalem. In the capital He had always found the soil very unreceptive. Jerusalem was the headquarters of rabbinic learning and priestly arrogance -- the home of the Pharisee and the Sadducee, who guided public opinion; and there, from first to last, He had made few adherents. It was in the provinces, especially in Galilee, that He had been the idol of the populace. It was by the Galilean pilgrims to the Passover that He was convoyed into the capital with shouts of Hosanna; but the inhabitants of the city stood coldly aloof, and before Pilate's judgment-seat they cried out, |Crucify Him, crucify Him!|
Yet now it turns out that He has touched the heart of one section at least even of this community: |There followed Him a great company of people and of women, which also bewailed and lamented Him.| Some have considered this so extraordinary that they have held these women to be Galileans; but Jesus addressed them as |daughters of Jerusalem.| The Galilean men who had surrounded Him in His hour of triumph put in no appearance now in His hour of despair; but the women of Jerusalem broke away from the example of the men and paid the tribute of tears to His youth, character and sufferings. It is said that there was a Jewish law forbidding the showing of any sympathy to a condemned man; but, if so, this demonstration was all the more creditable to those who took part in it. The upwelling of their emotion was too sincere to be dammed back by barriers of law and custom.
It is said there is no instance in the Gospels of a woman being an enemy of Jesus. No woman deserted or betrayed, persecuted or opposed Him. But women followed Him, they ministered to Him of their substance, they washed His feet with tears, they anointed His head with spikenard; and now, when their husbands and brothers were hounding Him to death, they accompanied Him with weeping and wailing to the scene of martyrdom.
It is a great testimony to the character of Christ on the one hand and to that of woman on the other. Woman's instinct told her, however dimly she at first apprehended the truth, that this was the Deliverer for her. Because, while Christ is the Saviour of all, He has been specially the Saviour of woman. At His advent, her degradation being far deeper than that of men, she needed Him more; and, wherever His gospel has travelled since then, it has been the signal for her emancipation and redemption. His presence evokes all the tender and beautiful qualities which are latent in her nature; and under His influence her character experiences a transfiguration.
It has, indeed, been contended that there was no great depth in the emotion of the daughters of Jerusalem; and we need not deny the fact. Their emotion was no outburst of faith and repentance, carrying with it revolutionary effects, as tears may sometimes be. It was an overflow of natural feeling, such as might have been caused by any pathetic instance of misfortune. It was not unlike the tears which may be still made to flow from the eyes of the tender-hearted by a moving account of the sufferings of Christ; and we know that such emotions are sometimes far from lasting. Our nature consists of several strata, of which emotion is the most superficial; and it is not enough that religion should operate in this uppermost region; it must be thrust down, through emotion, into the deeper regions, such as the conscience and the will, and catch hold and kindle there, before it can achieve the mastery of the entire being.
But this response of womanhood to Christ was a beginning; and therein lay its significance. It was to Him a foretaste of the splendid devotion which He was yet to receive from the womanhood of the world. It was as welcome to Him in that hour of desertion and reproach as is the sight of a tuft of grass to the thirsty traveller in the desert. The sounds of sympathy flowed over His soul as gratefully as the gift of Mary's love enveloped His senses when the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.
Thus in the Via Dolorosa Jesus experienced two alleviations of His suffering: the strength of a man relieved His body of the burden of the cross, and the pain of His soul was cooled by the sympathy of women. Is it not a parable -- a parable of what men and women can do for Him still? Christ needs the strength of men -- the strong arm, the vigorous hand, the shoulders that can bear the burden of His cause; He seeks from men the mind whose originality can plan what needs to be done, the resolute will that pushes the work on in spite of opposition, the liberal hand that gives ungrudgingly what is required for the progress and success of the Christian enterprise. From women he seeks sympathy and tears. They can give the sensibility which keeps the heart of the world from hardening; the secret knowledge which finds out the objects of Christian compassion and wins their confidence; the enthusiasm which burns like a fire at the heart of religious work. The influence of women is subtle and remote; but it is on this account all the more powerful; for they sit at the very fountains, where the river of human life is springing, and where a touch may determine its entire subsequent course.
It has been allowed to condemned men in all ages to speak to the crowds assembled to witness their death. The dying speech used in this country to be a regular feature of executions. Even in ages of persecution the martyrs were usually allowed, as they ascended the ladder, to address the multitude; and these testimonies, some of which were of singular power and beauty, were treasured by the religious section of the community. It is nothing surprising, therefore, that Jesus should have addressed those who followed Him or should have been permitted to do so. No doubt He was at the last point of exhaustion, but, when He was relieved of the weight of the cross, He was able to rally strength sufficient for this effort. Pausing in the road and turning to the women, whose weeping and wailing were filling His ears, He addressed Himself to them.
His words are, in the first place, a revelation of Himself. They show what was demonstrated again and again during the crucifixion -- how completely He could forget His own sufferings in care and anxiety for others. His sufferings had already been extreme; His soul had been filled with injustice and insult; at this very moment His body was quivering with pain and His mind darkened with the approach of still more atrocious agonies. Yet, when He heard behind Him the sobs of the daughters of Jerusalem, there rushed over His soul a wave of compassion in which for the moment His own troubles were submerged.
We see in His words, too, the depth and fervour of His patriotism. When He saw the tears of the women, the spectacle raised in His mind an image of the doom impending over the city whose daughters they were. Jerusalem, as has been already said, had always been extremely unresponsive to Him; she had played to Him an unmotherly part. None the less, however, did He feel for her the love of a loyal son. He had shown this a few days before, when, in the midst of His triumph, He paused on the brow of Olivet, where the city came into view, and burst into a flood of tears, accompanied with such a lyric cry of affection as has never been addressed to any other city on earth. Subsequently, sitting with His disciples over against the temple, He showed how well He foreknew the terrible fate which hung over the capital of His country, and how poignantly He felt it. The city's doom was nigh at hand: less than half a century distant: and it was to be unparalleled in its horror. The secular historian of it, himself a Jew, says in his narrative: |There has never been a race on earth, and there never will be one, whose sufferings can be matched with those of Jerusalem in the days of the siege.| It was the foresight of this which made Jesus now say, |Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.|
His words, still further, reveal His consideration for women and children. The tears of the women displayed an appreciation and sympathy for Him such as the men were incapable of; but well did He deserve them, for His words show that He had a comprehension of women and a sympathy with them such as had never before existed in the world. With the force of the imagination and the heart He realised how, in the approaching siege, the heaviest end of the misery would fall on the female portion of the population, and how the mothers would be wounded through their children. In that country, where children were regarded as the crown and glory of womanhood, the currents of nature would be so completely reversed by the madness of hunger and pain that barrenness would be esteemed fortunate; and in a country where length of days had been considered the supreme blessing of life they would long and cry for sudden and early death.
So it actually turned out. An outstanding feature of the siege of Jerusalem, according to the secular historian, was the suffering of the women and children. Besides using every other device of warfare, the Romans deliberately resorted to starvation, and the inhabitants endured the uttermost extremities of hunger. So frenzied did the men become at last that every extra mouth requiring to be filled became an object of delirious suspicion, and the last morsels were snatched from the lips of the women and children. One is tempted to quote some of the stories of Josephus about this, but they are so awful that it would be scarcely decent to repeat them.
This was what the quick sympathy of Jesus enabled Him to divine; and His compassion gushed forth towards those who were to be the chief sufferers. Women and children -- how irreverently they have been thought of, how callously and brutally treated, since history began! Yet they are always the majority of the human race. Praise be to Him who lifted them, and is still lifting them, out of the dust of degradation and ill-usage, and who put in on their behalf the plea of justice and mercy!
Finally, there was in the words addressed to the daughters of Jerusalem an exhortation to repentance. When Jesus said, |Weep for yourselves and for your children,| He was referring not merely to the approaching calamities of the city, but to its guilt. This was indicated most clearly in the closing words of His address to them -- |For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?|
He could speak of Himself as a green tree. He was young and He was innocent; to this the tears of the women testified; there was no reason why He should die; yet God permitted all these things to happen to Him. The Jewish nation ought also to have been a green tree. God had planted and tended it; it had enjoyed every advantage; but, when He came seeking fruit on it, He found none. It was withered; the sap of virtue and godliness had gone out of it; it was dry and ready for the burning; and, when the enemy came to apply the firebrand, why should God interpose? Thus did Jesus attempt once more to awaken repentance. He wished to thrust the impressions of the daughters of Jerusalem down from the region of feeling into a deeper place. They had given Him tears of emotion; He desired, besides these, tears of contrition; for in religion nothing is accomplished till impression touches the conscience.
Whether any of them responded in earnest we cannot tell. Not many, it is to be feared. Nor can we tell whether by repentance the destruction of the Jewish state might still have been averted. At all events, the fire of invasion soon fell on the dry tree, and it was burnt up. And since then those who would not weep for their sins before the stroke of punishment fell have had to weep without ceasing. Visitors to Jerusalem at the present day are conducted to a spot called the Place of Wailing, where every Friday representatives of the race weep for the destruction of their city and temple. This has gone on for centuries; and it is only a symbol of the cup of astonishment, filled to the brim, which has during many centuries been held to the lips of Israel. Sin must be wept for some time -- if not before punishment has fallen, then after; if not in time, then in eternity. This is a lesson for all. And has not that final word of Jesus a meaning for us even more solemn than it had for those to whom it was first addressed -- |If these things be done in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?| If woe and anguish fell, as they did, even on the Son of God, when He was bearing the sins of the world, what will be the portion of those who have to bear their own?
The participle refers to the women alone.
|How slow we have been to ask our sister members to help us! -- although we read of deaconesses in the early Church, and although we do not read of a single woman who was unkind and unfaithful to the Saviour while here upon earth. Men were diabolic in their cruelty to Him, but never did a woman betray Him, mock Him, desert Him, nor spit in His face. Many of them cheered Him on His way to the Cross, washing His feet with tears before men pierced them with nails, anointing His head with precious perfume in anticipation of the thorns with which men crowned Him. They wept with Him on the way to Calvary, and were true to Him to the very end. And are they not devoted and true to Him still? Why, then, have we been so long in calling for their services?| -- E. HERBERT EVANS, D.D.
Brace, Gesta Christi.
Striking description in Baring-Gould, The Passion of Jesus, p.75.