Elizabeth L. Windsor, DMin March 14, 2021 The Fourth Sunday of Lent Psalm 23 Romans 8: 37-39 Matthew 5: 1-6 The Comfort of Mourning
“Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.” I cannot think of a sentence that better describes where we are as a people at this moment. It has been a year since Covid-19 changed our lives in profound ways. We have been mourning the loss of so much that we loved; family and friends sickened or dead, time lost with siblings and grandchildren, colleagues, and friends, the loss of work and in-person schooling, the loss of gathering for worship, concerts, sporting events and those major life markers – graduations, weddings, and yes, funerals.
Even as the light at the end of the Covid tunnel is approaching, the mourning feels as though it will go on forever. Among my clergy friends and colleagues, there is a growing sense of unease – all of the funerals and memorial services that could not be held due to Covid restrictions now will stretch across the late spring and summer. There is so much grief compounded by delay, so much trauma that requires acknowledgement and tending to. Mental health professionals are already cautioning that after the immediate jubilation of re-joining something like “normal” life, there will be a flood post-traumatic stress disorder breaking into our communities – from the youngest among us to our elders. We already know of the deep depression that has overwhelmed so many in all ages and stages of life. We have mourning permanently etched into our souls.
The promise Jesus makes to us in today’s beatitude is that we will be comforted in our mourning. While I trust in the promise, I confess I cannot see how we are going to be comforted or how we are going to offer comfort to others on such a massive scale. A rabbi friend remarked the other day, “We should sit Shiva for at least a year.” A Catholic priest friend is thinking along the same lines: “How do we hold a wake for the world?”
For people of faith, gathering together to mourn is how we give and receive comfort. Those with whom we mourn reveal the presence of God with us in our mourning–and that particular gift IS comforting. As both my rabbi friend and my priest friend’s wise words remind us, in our mourning of the past year that comfort has been denied us.
But has God’s presence been absent? Paul’s words from Romans assure us that God has been with us in our solitary mourning, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” These are some of the most comforting words in the New Testament and there is a reason that this passage is often included in funeral or memorial services. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus – not even during a pandemic. The question is: how will we live that truth?
For us to realize promise that Jesus is with us in our lives at the present moment and in the post-pandemic months and years to follow, requires us to remember that “Christhas no body but ours,” as Teresa of Avila teaches. WE are to comfort the mourners – a challenge to each one of us as we are not only those who comfort but also those who mourn. This is a complicated process. We know that those who live with trauma can be triggered again by others’ traumatic experiences. We also know that we live in a society that is deeply afraid of illness and death. Many of those around us will choose anger as a response rather than admit that no one of us is strong enough to heal ourselves. We need the comfort of others on this journey to be present to our own pain and we need to be present to the pain of others in order to comfort them. This is not going to be easy; we are in unfamiliar territory and the scope and scale of whatever the new normal will be is going to require faith, action and our presence in ways it has not before.
As I have been talking with friends and colleagues of faith, I realized I have been struggling with just how to comfort others and receive comfort in the face of such overwhelming need. A Wise Woman friend from a church I previously served reminded me that we had read together The Book of Joy by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dali Lama. In it, the Dali Lama tells of his experience on an overnight flight from San Francisco to Japan. Seated near him were a couple with a three-year-old toddler and a baby. Both parents did their best to keep the children occupied. But the Dad eventually fell asleep and the Dali Lama noticed the mother’s swollen, exhausted eyes as she continued to care for the two tired and cranky children herself. He writes, “I thought about it and I don’t think I would have had that kind of patience.” The Dali Lama names this type of self-giving love as compassion. The narrator of the book further observes, “It probably takes many years of monastic practice to equal the spiritual growth generated by one sleepless night with a sick child.” The same can be said about caring for a sick parent, sick spouse or sick friend.” And I think the same can be said for a year of social distancing, isolation and mourning.
Aware of it or not, this past year has been an unsought exercise of the practices that lead to spiritual growth. The disciplines of mask-wearing, self-isolation and hand washing in order to care for ourselves, those we love and those who are our neighbors is a spiritual exercise–and we have had ample time to practice it. This practice has taught us patience and compassion–the exact spiritual gifts that we will need to be Christ’s hands and heart comforting a post-pandemic world. Patience with ourselves and others and compassion for ourselves and others will be stretched in new ways as we live into whatever lies ahead in a post-pandemic society. We have the promise that Jesus is with us and in us–both as we mourn and as we comfort. And that will be more than sufficient in a world where “Christ has no body but ours.” Thanks be to God. Amen.