Fourth Sunday of Advent
A verse from our Psalm for today, this fourth Sunday of Advent: “You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure” (Ps 80:5).
Tears flow like a stream through the pages of our Scriptures, sometimes turning into a river in books like Lamentations and Jeremiah, sometimes reduced to only a trickle in the Gospels, but no matter where you open the Bible, you’ll find tears running across the pages. Our holy scriptures is a memory book of tears.
Genesis 33, “Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming. And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”
Genesis 43, “Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome by affection for his brother and was at the point of tears. So he went to his room and wept there.”
1 Samuel 1, “Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord… She was deeply hurt and prayed to the Lord, and wept with many tears.”
Job 16, “My face is red with weeping, red from my tears, and dark shadows encircle my eyelids… My friends scorn me; my eye pours out tears to God.”
The bread of tears. For some reason, this week I thought it’d be a good idea to flip through my Bible, reading all the parts about tears, the verses about weeping. If God offers us the bread of tears, as the Psalmist says, I thought I should get a taste for it—a taste for the Word of God, a taste for the bread of life as dough made with tears.
Ecclesiastes 4, “I saw all the oppressions under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them. On the side of their oppressors there was power—with no one to comfort them.”
Isaiah 15, “In the streets they bind on sackcloth; on their roofs everyone howls and wails, and melts into tears.”
Lamentations 2, “My eyes are spent with weeping; my bowels are troubled, my liver is poured upon the earth, because infants faint in the streets.”
Psalm 6, “I am weary with my groaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with weeping.”
In the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo said that the church is like a loaf of Communion bread—when we see the bread, we see ourselves. We are the grain, he said: “after a certain amount of pounding and crushing, we are joined together by means of water.” Augustine says that the water for bread-making is baptism. I wonder if it’s the tears that come with the pounding and crushing. (Sermon 227.1)
“You have fed them with the bread of tears,” the Psalmist writes, “and given them tears to drink in full measure” (Ps 80:5). The bread is a sign of a miracle, the mysteries of grace—where tears become a holy ingredient, necessary for the dough, taken into the bread, tears as the softening of the Holy Spirit in us, making it so that God can knead us into one another.
The bread of tears, a communion that stretches us not only into one another but also into our Scriptures, folding us into story after story of people who cried out to God, tears streaming across page after page.
Luke 7, “A woman stood behind Jesus, at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. She kissed his feet and anointed them.”
John 11, “Jesus said to them, ‘Where you have laid Lazarus?’ And he burst into tears. And they said, ‘See how he loved him.’ ”
John 20, “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white… And they said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ ”
Why are you weeping? Because of love. The woman loved Jesus. Jesus loved Lazarus. Mary loved Jesus. The candle on the fourth Sunday of Advent reminds us of love—that God so loved the world that God sent us Jesus, love in the flesh. Teresa of Avila, in the sixteenth century, told of the tears that come with love, when loves grabs a hold of you—like the woman’s tears that poured over the feet of Jesus, like the tears of Mary at the empty tomb. “God gives us tears,” Teresa said, “to awaken us to love.”
The bread of tears as soft bread, softened by tears of love.
2 Corinthians 2, “I wrote to you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.”
2 Timothy 1, “I am grateful to God when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.”
The Word of God is the bread of life, bread softened by tears, pages wet with loving tears—“I write to you with many tears,” Paul says, “to let you know the abundant love I have for you.”
One of the mysteries of Advent has to do with timing: Why was Jesus born at that moment of history, why not earlier, why not later—why Mary? The Advent stories are full of bewilderment, questions about why now and how is any of this possible. Mary asks the angel Gabriel, “How can this be?” And when Elizabeth sees Mary, she says, “Why has this happened to me?”
I think the best explanation from the theology books is the answer that says we have no idea why God chose that moment of history for the incarnation. So, Thomas Aquinas, for example, said that Jesus was born in that time and place, because it was fitting. That’s all, fitting—because that happened to be the moment when Jesus seemed to fit best in human history.
I like what Paul says in Galatians, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman,” born of Mary. (Galatians 4)
The fullness of time. I think of God, waiting years upon years, overwhelmed with longing to draw closer to human beings, closer to us, and all that longing spilling out from her eyes.
Here’s God crying in Jeremiah 9,
“O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people… Thus says the Lord of hosts: Let them quickly raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids gush with water.”
When medieval artists painted the moment when Mary became pregnant, they painted a scroll coming down from heaven, words carried by a dove, entering into Mary’s ear—impregnated by the Word of God, because in Mary the “Word became flesh,” as it says in the Gospel of John.
I think of Mary as receiving the tears of God, years and years of God’s love building up to overflowing from her eyes—“My eyes a fountain of tears,” “eyelids gushing with water,” as God says in Jeremiah, and those tears falling down into Mary, watering the seed of the Word, the tears of God as the flesh of Christ, the body of Christ as bread for the world, the bread of tears, soft and fleshy.
God waits for the fullness of time, and as God waits, love fills her heart, stretching to the point of bursting, because she loves humankind so much—For God so loved the world.
And Mary’s song is what God’s heartbeat sounds like—the powerful are cast down from their thrones, the lowly are lifted up; the hungry are filled with good things, the rich are sent away empty.
And Mary is what God’s heart looks like—her womb.
The tears of God’s love look like the tears of Mary, as she delivers Christ into the world, the fullness of God in the fullness of Mary.
This is what the good news looks like, the good news of Advent and Christmas, the good news of the incarnation.
The good news is that all our tears, a history of tears, has become the waters of Mary’s womb. And that in Christ’s body has been gathered all our mourning and longing, generations of tears. And Christ has promised that all our cries for redemption will be answered.
2 Kings 20, “Thus says the Lord: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; indeed, I will heal you.”
Revelation 7, “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more, for the Lamb will be their shepherd, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Isaiah 25, “The Lord God will swallow up death forever and will wipe away the tears from all faces.”