As Christ carried the cross-beam through the streets of Jerusalem, he was accompanied by a great crowd of people, among whom were women in mourning for him. The episode is only mentioned in St Luke’s gospel, which is often described as the ‘gospel of women’ because of its strong female focus.
St Luke’s tells us that the women were “beating their breasts and wailing for him”. But Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.” 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?’”
Who exactly were these mourning women? Had they once been part of the group who had enthusiastically welcomed Christ into the city a week earlier? Was their mourning a mere ritual, or something deeper from the heart? Had they heard him preach before? All good questions, but not ones we have certain answers to.
Christ himself had already wept for the people of Jerusalem, since he foresaw the future destruction of the city by the Romans in 70AD. Describing the fall of Jerusalem, he said: “Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations.” (Luke 19:41-44; 21:23-24).
His proverb – describing both “green” and “dry” wood is a little hard to understand. He may have been referring to the upcoming doom of both young and old, in as much as green branches are young and dry ones are old. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us after the capture of the city, the elderly were put to death, while the women and children were sold as slaves. The saying about preferring a quick death from the mountains and hills comes from the prophet Hosea (10:8), which suggests that Christ was talking about God’s judgment on the city.
This polychrome image of the meeting with the wailing women is found at the national shrine of St Augustine of Canterbury, in Ramsgate. It depicts the eighth station of the cross, the traditional devotion encouraging Catholics to meditate on the last sufferings of Christ. It’s part of a painted terracotta panel picturing all fourteen Stations of the Cross and dates to 1893.
The stations, by the Belgian sculptor Alois De Beule, are found within the cloister of the church, which is itself a Pugin masterpiece. In this striking scene, a pale-faced Christ gestures to the women of Jerusalem, while Simon of Cyrene (in green) helps him to carry the cross and the guards look on.
Where to find this work of art
Shrine of St Augustine, Ramsgate
Read the relevant passage