Msgr. Charles Pope, March 29, 2020
In the Stations of the Cross Jesus says a rather extraordinary thing. He addresses it to the women who have gathered to lament Him:
Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children, for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, “Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.” At that time people will say to the mountains, “Fall upon us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!” for if these things are done when the wood is green what will happen when it is dry? (Luke 23:28-31)
As awful as the crucifixion would be, as mightily sinful as it was for us to have condemned the Lord, Jesus says that something worse is coming, something even more awful. What was He talking about? Is it a prophecy for our times?
When we read any biblical text, we should ask three questions: What did it mean then? What does it mean now? What does it mean for me? Too often today an almost exclusive focus is placed on the historical meaning of a text. While this is interesting it is also important to apply the text to our own times and to our own self. This is usually the goal of good preaching. Let’s look at this passage with all three questions in mind.
1. What did it mean then? Jesus had often spoken of a great destruction soon to come upon Jerusalem for her lack of belief. He did this primarily in the Olivet Discourse, which is recorded in the Synoptic Gospels (Mt 24:1-51; Mk 13:1-37; Lk 21:5-36). Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies, nation will rise against nation, the temple will be destroyed and there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again (Mat 24:21). Many misinterpret this discourse as referring to the end of the world, but Jesus is clearly referring to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem (which in fact took place in 70 A.D.) (cf Matt 24:2-4; Mark 13:2-5; Luk 21:5-7). In many ways, the Jewish war with the Romans was one of the bloodiest and most awful wars ever fought. Josephus indicates that 1.2 million Jews lost their lives in this devastating war. Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple was thrown down, never to be rebuilt.
Jesus seems to be saying to the women, “Women of Jerusalem, though you weep for me in my suffering, be aware that something far worse will come upon you and your children. It will be so awful that people will actually call those who died ‘blessed’ and those who never existed ‘lucky.’ It will be so awful that people will long for death.”
He then refers to green wood and dry wood, in a sentence that basically means, “If I, who am innocent, meet this fate of crucifixion, what will be in store for the guilty?”
Hence, what this passage meant then was that Jesus was summoning the women to prayer, to a deep and mournful prayer that would call people to conversion. Otherwise, difficult days would lie ahead.
2. What does it mean now? Jesus spoke not only to his times but to ages yet unborn. His words fit our times like a glove. For indeed these are times when many say, “Blessed are the wombs that have borne no children. Blessed are the wombs that bear fewer children. Blessed are those who practice contraception. Blessed are the surgically sterilized.” In other words, Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore, the breast that never nursed. Throughout the Western world, birth rates have plummeted; in some countries they are dangerously low. Some Western Christian nations and societies are practicing contraception and inflicting abortion to the extent that they are approaching a point of no return. Years of fear-mongering about overpopulation, extolling the virtues of contraception, and preferring the single life to marriage and family has led to a dramatic shift in the attitudes of many Westerners toward children, who are now seen as more a burden than a blessing. Sterility and barrenness were considered a terrible curse until quite recently. But in what Pope John Paul II termed a “culture of death,” many have come to say “Blessed are the barren.” And although nations such as Germany, France, and Italy are practically begging their citizens to have more children (even providing tax incentives) it seems that most Western Christians can’t be bothered with such things as marriage and family.
In addition, many in the radical environmentalist movement today see humanity as a great scourge on the planet and would seem to prefer that “the mountains fall on us and the hills cover us.” There are bumper stickers that say, “Earth First.” There is a show on The History Channel fantasizes about “Life after Humans” (actually, it’s a rather creative show).
In looking forward to our times, perhaps Jesus’ words to the women would be: “Women of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for your descendants. For the days are actually coming when people will say ‘Blessed are the barren.’ The days are actually coming when people will prefer not to have children at all or at least to have as few as possible. The days are actually coming when children will be aborted in the womb and the ability to do this will be called a ‘right,’ when women in difficult situations will be taken to abortionists by people who they are doing something good. The days are actually coming when depression, self-loathing, hopelessness, and misplaced priorities will so consume your descendants that they will prefer nonexistence to existence, when death will become a kind of ‘therapy’ through abortion, euthanasia, contraception, and stem-cell research. Yes, dear women, prayerful weeping may push off these grievous times for a while, but the days are coming when these things shall come to pass. For if you think things are bad now when the wood is green, what will happen when the wood becomes dry?”
You may think that the picture I paint with those words is a bit extreme. But there is a stunning quality to Jesus’ words as He warns these women of very difficult days ahead. They are just as stunning in our times. Though our historical moment is different, it actually seems to be a more literal fulfillment of Jesus’ words!
3. What does it mean for me? Now do you really think I am going to do your work for you? It remains for each of us to answer this question for him/herself. What do we weep about? Do we weep about things that really matter or merely over worldly losses—things that will be lost anyway? What kind of a world are we bequeathing to our children? Do we love life? Is new life a sign of hope for us or is it a burden? Do we speak prophetically about the culture of death? Do we encourage marriage and praise childbearing? Do we help young parents through some of the difficulties of raising children? The Lord surely has many more of these personal questions for us. Ponder the text slowly and consider what the Lord might be saying to you.
As a child, I remember being taught in school to fear overpopulation; we were told that the Earth would soon run out of room. The video below is a clip from “The Mark of Gideon,” a 1969 episode of Star Trek that showcases the overpopulation anxiety of the time. In this episode, Captain Kirk is abducted by Ambassador Hodin of the germ-free, overpopulated planet, Gideon. Hodin has a plan to use Kirk to introduce a deadly virus (which Kirk carries but to which he is immune) to Gideon in order to reduce the population. Kirk exhorts Hodin to instead encourage the population to use contraceptives and sterilization. The segment goes on to paint the inhabitants’ love for life as somewhat pathetic. Kirk even gets angry when they demonstrate respect for life from conception until natural death.