“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
--Matthew 5:4 NRSV
I shared in Tuesday’s email about how the liturgical church calendar has All Saints Sunday as the first Sunday after Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve). It’s customary to read from the Gospel of Matthew’s Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12, which forms the introduction to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7). I won’t be preaching on the Beatitudes this Sunday, so I felt it was a good idea to share about them via these emails.
Remember, the Beatitudes (the verses that begin “Blessed are . . . “) are not instructions to be poor in spirit, mourners, meek, persecuted, etc., but rather declarations of the way God sees the world. Jesus depicts God’s reality in a way which is contrary to how we understand how the world works. This seems especially true in the case of the second beatitude (“Blessed are those who mourn. . . “).
Often interpreters who understand the Beatitudes as instructions or as ideals to strive for see this beatitude only in communal terms. In this kind of view, the mourning in question is concern about the sinful or unrighteous state of the world. In other words, those who are a part of the Kingdom of Heaven grieve all the ways our world falls short of God’s intended purposes. I certainly don’t think this kind of mourning is bad, rather I think it is an appropriate perspective for people of faith to mourn the ways humanity despoils the earth, commits acts of violence upon one another, supports prejudice of every kind and allows a sizable chunk of humanity to live in squalor. Nonetheless, I do not think this is what Jesus had in mind with this beatitude, at least not exclusively.
I believe Jesus meant people are blessed by God who are mourning losses. It sounds absurd, so I get why interpreters have found ways to understand this mourning as something other than the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the end of a dream or the dissolution of a marriage. How can one possibly be blessed when they are enduring the inevitable losses in life?
I think the answer comes when we understand “blessed” less as a tangible benefit of some kind and more as divine favor or concern. Attempts to point out the blessings that may or may not arise from grief can come across as cold or cruel, as if one is telling someone in pain to “look on the bright side” or remember “every cloud has a silver lining”. If blessings ever do come from times of grief, they come in the form of personal growth, an increase in compassion and empathy, or gratitude for the love received from others. These may come eventually, but they never fill the void left in one’s life.
For me, the words “Blessed are those who mourn . . . “are a comfort in and of themselves, because it means when I grieve that I am not forgotten or abandoned by God. God cares for me. I am not being cursed or punished because of some sin or shortcoming but rather painful losses happen in life for reasons that remain a mystery, and God is present with us during those times.
Indeed, the Gospels reveal Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus, wept over the fate of Jerusalem, and wept facing his impending death. The power of the Incarnation is that in Christ God experienced what it is to grieve. This is not a God who remains far off from us but a God who draws near to us and shares our pain. The loss we feel is felt by God too.
This blessedness or co-suffering of God with those who mourn is beautifully expressed in the hymn “Be Still My Soul.”
Be still my soul the Lord is on thy side
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain
Leave to thy God to order and provide
In every change He faithful will remain
Be still my soul thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end
The hymn speaks to the second half of the beatitude “. . . for they shall be comforted.” There is no time table given for when this comfort will show up. In this life, comfort may come in the faithfulness of friends and family, a sense of God’s presence or simply the passage of time. Comfort in its fullness comes in the mysteries that await us after this life is over.
The future orientation of the second half of the beatitude (“. . . for they shall be comforted”) offers us the guarantee that the comfort will come even though we may veel our pain will never end. This promise is essential, because so much of what we grieve is the loss of an expected future that will not come to pass. Former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ John Thomas speaks eloquently of this facet of grief:
We often think of grief as the loss of something or someone that has been important to us in the past. But the sharpest pain of grief comes, I believe, in the moments when we suddenly find ourselves confronting a vastly altered future . . . It is not so much the loss of a rich past as it is the prospect of a barren future that causes us our most profound grief.
Jesus’ declaration that those who mourn “shall be comforted” is a promise that when we think our lives are over and believe we can’t go on without what or whom we have lost, God offers a future still. Our lives will never go back to what they were before our losses; our losses remain with us. But a new kind of life always lies before us, because our Divine friend walks with us ino that future.
In 2020, we have known so many losses of all kinds: over 220,000 people in our country dead from COVID-19, loss of community, jobs and our best laid plans. The interpreters who want to interpret this Beatitude as communal, mourning over the state of our world, are not all wrong. I just believe our mourning is not an either/or proposition. We mourn for the suffering in our world and we mourn for the losses in our individual lives. Whatever our suffering, whatever we mourn, Jesus promises us that the blessing of God's presence remains true. New life remains in our future and our God walks besides us on our way there.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
6601 Northwest 72nd Street, Kansas City, MO 64151 | 816-741-1851