Beatitudes,  Guest Contributors

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

Written by Márcia Smith

 

I was a Peter Pan sort of kid in elementary school. Not the fairies and pirates and all, but I puzzled over the drabness and predictability of grown-ups and their unfathomable dislike for running around. Grown-ups sat and talked and talked and didn’t enjoy life with the least bit of wild, happy energy that I did. If grown-up life had a radio channel, it was hosted by a monotone DJ.

Lesson learned: growing up was to be avoided at all costs.

I was confident that I had the best and the worst of life figured out.

Fast forward twenty years, and to my consternation, “figuring out life” is only the street name of the game. The unexpected not only elbows its way into the everyday, but, paradoxically, it also hits harder, sinks deeper, and the shockwaves often jar us longer than our capacity for disquietude can neatly handle.

As I prepared this essay on mourning, I was hit with the news that a close family friend had died in a small airplane crash. The unexpected delivered pain, denial, anger, helplessness, fear, and numbness right to my doorstep, a sharp illumination of the Beatitudes. As the aching, gut-deep grief washed my waking hours and vise-gripped my heart again and again throughout the following weeks, the psalmist cried out for me:

How long, O Lord?

How long must I take counsel in my soul,

and have sorrow in my heart all the day?”

“Blessed are those who mourn…” background-narrated my grief, wholly unwanted. It chafed and seemed to mock as I wept for my older brother losing his best friend, for the young man’s wife and four children. The promise tacked on at the end, “…for they shall be comforted,” was cold comfort for their intimate grief.

Yet, blessed are those who mourn, Jesus says, paradoxically, addressing an underdog nation that groans beneath the heavy, cruel hand of the Roman Empire. To his audience, “Blessed are those who fight to the death,” or, “Blessed are those who suck it up, grit their teeth and show no weakness in the face of adversity,” would have better matched the long-awaited Messiah who was promised to free them from their oppressors. It takes little imagination to hear the confused mutters and pained expressions of a people who felt beat down and slighted in their nine-to-fives, daily reminded of their subjugation.

Makarios is the word translated here “blessed,” a translation that in modern-speak can’t quite capture the pronouncement Jesus is making. “Happy” is another translation sometimes used for makarios, but as theologian Jonathan T. Pennington carefully draws out in The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, “Makarios statements are proclamations of a state of flourishing, not pronouncements of what to do and be to enjoy God’s favor.” (emphasis mine) In his sermon on the mount, Jesus is casting an extraordinary vision for life in the kingdom, both his kingdom now and the kingdom to come, and even as the beatitude of mourning rings particularly oxymoronic in the lineup (happy are those who are sad?), it certainly plays a prominent role in the kingdom now.

 

WAKING UP

Amidst the myriad of ugly, twisted, and broken this side of heaven, we are a people who encounter pain after pain in our own selves, in others, and in the circumstances spanning our lives. Part of this is living under the heavy shadow of our own fallen humanity and this sin-stained earth, and part of it, the intense awakening taking place as we are birthed into a new life of grace and holiness. As pastor John Piper words poignantly,

“One of the most amazing things about becoming a Christian is that it awakens you to more sorrow. You come to Christ and you are not naïve. You suddenly wake up to pain. Of course there is pain for unbelievers, but they have no sense of how big it is, how horrible it is, or how long it can endure. To be a Christian is to be awake to cancer and birth defects and profound mental disabilities and divorce and child abuse including abortion and terrorism and earthquakes and tsunamis and racial hostilities and prejudices and white-collar crime and sex trafficking and poverty and hunger and a thousand daily frustrations that make life very hard. Every Christian is increasingly sensitized to these things. The gospel brings life, right? And living things are awake and alert and touchable by other things. Which means, welcome to Christ and greater sorrow.”

I confess my own heart is troubled at the picture of painful rebirth that shows itself throughout Scriptures. Who on earth wants to mourn more intuitively, or signs up for acute grief, or reroutes through the valley overhung with the shadow of death?

Growing up in a family that practiced regular Bible reading together, I was confident for a time in my six or seven-year-old mind that Jesus had never physically experienced the pain of the crucifixion; the divine side of him took over at that point and he’d only pretended that he was hurting, or he was able to “mind-over-matter” the whole thing. Either way, it seemed to me that since Jesus already knew that God would save the world, that gave him a pass on the pain from those metal-tipped whips and nails and mockery, and skipped him right ahead to waking up alive and well, ready to go on with ministry and such.

Beyond the fun-sized Docetism[1] emerged the larger question in the subsequent years: If God knew all would end well, why the horrific suffering at all? Job seemed to ask a similar genre of question, him of the wrecked life, bitter wife, broken potsherds and unhelpful, existentially untroubled friends. The book of Ruth tells the story of Naomi, whose name means “joy” or “pleasant.” She was left destitute in a foreign land after her husband and sons suddenly died, and upon returning to her people in Israel, where names were highly significant, she demanded her community call her no longer Naomi, but Mara, “bitter.” She did not pretend to be unshaken by her difficult circumstances, nor did she try to project that all was well. Daily she chose to be reminded of her bitter lot and deep anguish, called as she was by this new name.

Years later, amidst the many questions excavated by suffering, I’ve found these at the bottom of them: Where is God in my suffering? And is it as painful to Him as it is to me right now? No doubt Jesus’ own life involved a great deal more mourning than we are privy to, he who poured himself out daily in perfect obedience even when his own very human body underwent temptation and weakness. This man of sorrows, magnet to the broken and broken-hearted, was surrounded by friends who repeatedly showed how little they really knew or understood him throughout their three-year companionship. And it is this man of sorrows whose sufferings we are told to rejoice in as we share in them (1 Pet. 4).

As we awaken to the state of things, as we are sensitized, we are receiving the heart of a compassionate Father whose heart was on vivid front-row display those three years. He is tenderly inviting us onto a pathway that tracks through wilderness, mountain, and valley, and in our brokenness to step with him into a depth of compassion far beyond our original emotional, mental, or physical capabilities. We are not told not to grieve anymore as His children, but not to grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thess. 4). Quite the opposite of losing the occasion to engage sadness, we are becoming “wounded healers,” as Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Catholic priest and writer, was wont to say—and notably so, as one who for ten years quietly served a community of disabled people.

As Jesus goes on in the next few years to embody each posture presented in the beatitudes, we begin to see how mourning in particular requires of us nothing short of engagement from heart, soul, mind, and body. I will venture to say that, as we who bear the hope of Christ learn to fully and graciously engage in the posture of grieving, we will both experience and learn to practice the kingdom of God in a way no other posture in our Christian life can simulate. And we can take comfort in knowing we are neither scorned nor forgotten as we weep in the same manner as the prophet Isaiah’s suffering servant.

 

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[1] In Christianity, Docetism is the belief that Jesus only seemed to be human, and that his human form was an illusion. Marcionism (the form of Docetism described here), teaches that Jesus Christ was so divine that he could not have been human, since God lacked a material body, which meant He could not physically suffer. Docetism was unequivocally rejected at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and is regarded as heretical by the Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, and many other Christian denominations that accept and hold to the statements of this early church council.

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