At the top of the first line of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata Pathetique reads the Italian word grave. The chords are supposed to linger in the air in that slow solemn tempo, but when I was studying the piece in preparation for a college audition, I rushed through them every time. I wanted to get into the next section, a furious and interesting exposition. Thus, in my hands, the sober beauty of the opening lines came across as dry and hurried.
In an effort to play the piece better, I researched the context in which Beethoven composed it. The year was 1789, around the time he had begun to notice the first signs of encroaching deafness. The thought filled him with dread. As he wrote in an October 1802 letter,
But what a humiliation for me when someone standing next to me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such incidents drove me almost to despair…a little more of that and I would have ended my life—it was only my art that held me back….Ah, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.1
As a composer, Beethoven was acutely aware of his loss—and yet he was compelled to compose music, perhaps to write even the specific chords at the opening of Pathetique. To truly play the sonata well, I needed to linger in Beethoven’s suffering. I needed to imagine how he might have felt as he wrote his 1802 letter. They were not simply sad minor chords to be rushed over with a cavalier air of indifference.
When I played the piece again, I let the sorrow of Beethoven sweep over me, playing the chords with the slow solemnity the sonata required. I grieved with Beethoven. And, finally, the beauty of the piece began at the beginning instead of ten bars in. The solution to my playing was not musical but fundamentally emotional: The key to playing well was stepping into Beethoven’s pain.
Jesus, A God Who Weeps
This idea of stepping into someone else’s pain makes me think of Jesus at the tomb of His friend Lazarus. As we read, “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (John 11:33). When He sees where Lazarus is in a tomb, “Jesus wept” (John 11:36). He grieves alongside Lazarus’s sisters, Mary and Martha, truly “mourning with those who mourn,” as Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans (Romans 12:15).
However, His mourning struck some as ironic, who asked, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37). It also confused His disciples, who knew that Jesus had been informed of Lazarus’s critical condition several days before they finally came to Bethany where Lazarus had lived. Indeed, they probably knew that Jesus had delayed His arrival (John 11:6).
For we who know that the story ends in resurrection, Jesus’s mourning might seem even more ironic. Jesus knew that He was going to resurrect Lazarus before He set out. As He says to the disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen alseep, but I go to awaken him” (John 11:11). Furthermore, when He arrived, Jesus could have immediately resurrected Lazarus, ending Mary and Martha’s grief—and His own—a little bit sooner. And yet Jesus wept, mourning with Mary and Martha even though He knew that their sorrow would soon end.
Jesus chose to sit in the pain of Lazarus’s death, showing that He is not a far away, distant God, but one who is compassionate and near. In his book Art + Faith: A Theology of Making, Makoto Fujimura explores this idea further, writing,
Jesus’s tears were shed onto the hardened ground of Bethany, evaporated, and are still with us. We breathe in his tears every day. I’d like to imagine that these tears, because they are the tears of the Son of God, multiplied, just like the fishes and the loaves, and embedded themselves into the fabric of the atmosphere. Our tears need to commingle with Jesus’s tears. It is right for us to be troubled deeply with the broken realities of the world around us. We need to stand in the pit of Ground Zero and breathe in Jesus’s tears.2
It is right to mourn. It is right for us to weep at gravesites; it is right for us to be filled with sorrow over injustice and sickness and suffering. Jesus weeps alongside us for those things.
Everything sad, untrue
When I play Beethoven’s Pathetique, I still try to take on his sorrow, and I try to make something beautiful with it. However, while I might get a glimpse of what it means to step into his suffering, I will never be able to do something about it. On that day thousands of years ago in Bethany, I might have wept with Mary and Martha, but I could never raise Lazarus from the grave.
But Jesus did. Indeed, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, He showed that He is God. When He wept before the resurrection, He showed that He is love. And it is because He loved us that He stepped into our suffering at the cost of Himself on Calvary, bringing about the redemption that we ourselves could never earn.
In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee asks Gandalf, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?”3 The answer, for the Christian, is yes. Martha and Mary and Jesus wept at Lazarus’s tomb, but there soon came a time for each of them to rejoice. Because of the eternal life Christians now have in Christ, there will come a time when our tears will end too. But until that day, we can comfort our souls with the truth that the God who steps into our suffering and weeps with us is the One who will soon dry every tear.
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