It’s difficult to speak well about death. I suppose it’s a topic which comes up more than I realise – when I see the news, it seems like death is actually pretty front and centre. Yet it also seems we often try to sterilize death and seek to avoid its sting. But in the face of my grandmother’s funeral last summer I’ve come to think death’s sting is something to be embraced. The grief from a life that’s been lost proves the worth of the life lived. Life is dignified by our mourning.
Death is the greatest and most assured eventuality for us all, but it’s a topic whose gravity we seem to evade and undermine. Our infatuation with making the best of every moment recognises our own mortality. Yet the pursuit of happiness and pleasure, whose roots give life to expressions like YOLO, often stumbles when faced with saying goodbye. The human quest of seeking to live positively so often fails to acknowledge the reality of hurt and pain.
Yet many psychologists report that our capacity to experience any emotion is restricted and limited by our unwillingness to engage with the most difficult and bitter. Our capacity to experience emotions we consider pleasant, such as joy and happiness, is only ever going to be increased by our grappling with these painful emotions, like loss and despair. Psychology tells us that it is only by pressing on through the turbulent waves of hurt and pain in the storm of saying good-bye that we will ever again be able to come to a full sense of emotional right-living.
This wisdom was addressed and significantly enriched in the teaching of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Matthew. His teaching famously begins with the Beatitudes, a list of eight markers and distinctions of what a good life – a whole life – looks like when we live as followers of Jesus.
Each begins with the phrase “Blessed are…”. We would be forgiven for mistaking Jesus to be talking about blessings the way we often do. For us today, a blessing is usually some sort of fortunate thing which we could boast about. Our blessings are our families, our friends, our jobs, our wealth, our awards, achievements, vacations, and our health. And many of these are good things – wonderful things! But Jesus meant something different when he gave his sermon on the mount. In the Greek, the word he uses here is best understood as a state of things being well. Jesus is saying, “You see this thing here? It is well with those who experience it.”
But even with that in mind, I still find myself taken aback by Jesus’ second Beatitude. It reads: Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (Matthew 5:4) We might rather read, “It is well with those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Jesus is giving us permission to mourn. But not only is he granting us a space to grieve – he is urging us to! It is well with those who mourn. Increasingly, it seems we are not given permission to mourn – not really. So many of our funerals remember the good times in a person’s life. And while many people find comfort in a celebration of life, remembering all of the good times, mandating a focus on the positive can have the effect of muting our grief. We can feel that we have been denied the reality of sitting in our sorrow and loss of our loved ones.
Grief is uncomfortable. Grief unsettles us because it exposes us to the reality that we are finite. The promises of this world will fail us in the end. They may well offer us comfort and pleasure, and moments of joy and happiness, but the reality of our grief – the reality of our mourning – bears witness to the fact that even the most wonderful things in life will one day fade away.
The notion which tells us that our prosperity – our health and wealth – are all that we need to be satisfied gets eviscerated by the sting and emptiness of loss. To mourn is to accept that this world is broken and that the promises of this world are not enough. When we mourn, we rest in the sting, in the hollowness, in the world-crushing, rug-swept-out-from-under-our-feet agony that life on earth is not as it should be. Our mourning is our heart’s cry that all is not well with this world. All things are not well. Our lives are not well.
And to this, Jesus speaks a promise: You will be comforted, all you who mourn. I will be your comforter.
And this sounds nice to us. For certainly peace and comfort are what we want in the midst of sorrow and despair. But what sort of comfort does Jesus offer us that this world can’t? What makes Jesus’ comfort any more meaningful or special than the anguished words of comfort in a Hallmark card?
All of our mourning cries out and testifies that this world is not well. But the kingdom is coming, and the Holy Spirit is alongside us, and all shall be made well.
The word translated here as comfort is parakaleo, which literally means “to call alongside.” This is the root word from which we derive paraklete – the promised comforter and helper whom Jesus promised he would send (John 14:16, 26; 15:26). We are comforted by none other than the Holy Spirit – by God himself. In the person of the Holy Spirit, Almighty God, who made the earth and the sky, the stars and the galaxies, the birds and the trees, the supernovae and the Big Bang, the hairs on our heads and the freckles on our arms – this God will comfort us. God will come alongside.
Our mourning is not in vain. Our grieving is not empty. Our woe does not go unseen, and our anguish does not go unheard. All of our mourning cries out and testifies that this world is not well. But the kingdom is coming, and the Holy Spirit is alongside us, and all shall be made well.
Here is our comfort: God is here. God is here and his kingdom is breaking in. The wrongs shall be made right. The pains shall be washed away. The deaf shall hear. The blind shall see. The mute shall sing. The lame shall walk. The captive shall be set free. Justice shall flow like a river – because God is here. His kingdom is at hand. All things shall be made well. For Christ has come. And he has died. But he has risen, and he will come again. And he has poured out his Spirit upon us – the promised paraklete.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. It is well with we who confess and testify that this world is not well; for Jesus comes now to meet us in our hurt, in our sorrow, in our affliction, in our pain.
Jesus is here with us, he is giving us space to mourn and say goodbye. He is encouraging us to tell him how hard life is; how unfair it all is. And he hears us. He is with us. He puts his arms around us, and gently and softly whispers in our ears,
“There, there, my child. I know.
I know not all is well.
I know not all is well in this world.
I know not all is well with you.
I know your pain.
I know your sorrow.
My child, come here and lay it all on me.
But know this, my child, know this –
This is not the end. Oh no.
For I am making all things well.
Yes. All are being made well.”
And so while it is good to have a celebration of a life well lived, it is also good to have opportunity to mourn. It is well for us to come to say goodbye, to grieve and to weep.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.