Blessed are those who mourn

All Souls                    November 1, 2016

Matthew 5:4

This evening we hear again the Beatitudes of Jesus, which we heard on Sunday, but this time in a different, more familiar form. And specifically, among the list of “Blessèds”, we will reflect on the second Beatitude: “Blessèd are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

Perhaps more than all the others, this goes right to the heart of the paradox of the beatitudes. It may be the hardest, most paradoxical of them all. After all, it is easy to imagine that the meek, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed. These are all, clearly, good things. Even those who are persecuted for Jesus’s sake have a certain heroic stature that somewhat compensates for the pain of persecution. But those who mourn? What is blessèd about mourning?

Mourning is about loss, pure and simple. We mourn for what we have lost. We mourn for a lost home, lost friendships, lost opportunities. We mourn for our own lost capacities as we age, for the things we are no longer able to do. We mourn for our loved ones fading away before our eyes. And we mourn for those we have loved and lost, for parents, siblings, for a beloved spouse, for friends, sometimes for our children.

So what is blessed about mourning? There seems to be nothing productive about it, nothing that serves a higher purpose. Grief is so often a dark cloud that settles over us, dulling our senses, sapping our energy and joy, robbing our sleep, sitting like a cold stone in our belly. It doesn’t feel blessèd; it feels like death.

Some of the more modern translations translate the beatitude: “Happy are they who mourn”, which seems to make even less sense. Some claim that this is closer to the original Greek, and that may be so, for all I know. But I’m not sure it helps us to understand what Jesus is trying to say. When we hear the word “happy”, we think of it as a description of how things are: either you’re happy, or you’re not. “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.” And happy is definitely not what mourning is about. But the word blessèd has a different feel. Blessèd is not the way we are – it talks about something happening to us. We are blessed. When Jesus calls us blessèd, he is not making an observation about our mood, he is pronouncing God’s blessing on us. We may not notice a difference in what we are experiencing, but we are blessed by God – his word makes it so.

What does it mean, then, to be blessed by God, what does it mean to be blessèd? What does it mean, for example, when I pronounce the blessing and make the sign of the cross over you at the end of every service?

At its root, in the Old Testament, blessing seems to carry with it the idea of life and energy, of prosperity and fertility and abundance – for example, when the patriarchs bless their children. If that is blessing, though, Jesus really is doing something very strange when he calls us blessèd precisely when we are brought face-to-face with death and illness and loss. Yes, he does promise something good, he promises that we will be comforted – but note that he does not say we will be blessèd when we find comfort, we are blessèd now, precisely in our grief.

Or take a passage like Psalm 1, perhaps the closest echo of the beatitudes:

Happy are those
who do not follow the way of sinners . . .
They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.

These verses echo the firm conviction of the wisdom literature in the Old Testament, that good things happen to good people. And that, surely, is the way we would like it to be in this world, the way things ought to be. Yet Jesus takes that very same language, and uses it when bad things happen to us.

So a blessing doesn’t necessarily bring flourishing and prosperity with it. It doesn’t necessarily change the outward shape of our life. The comfort Jesus promises is in the future, in the future of God’s own redemption, and that may be a long ways off. Whatever difference it makes, whatever benefit it brings us now, is an invisible, spiritual benefit. Many people would say that that makes it meaningless, that a benefit you can’t see, that doesn’t change anything in your life, is just imaginary, just a pathetic coping mechanism.

But for those of us for whom God is a meaningful way of understanding our life, it is there that the blessing has meaning. Not in our outer lives, perhaps, not yet; but in God. When Jesus calls us blessèd, I would suggest, he is saying that we are loved by God. That we are particularly close to the heart of God; when we mourn, when we are hungry for justice, when we are vulnerable, when we are hurt.

We are close to God’s heart, because at times like this we are most like God. When we are grieving, for our own loss or the loss of others; when we are hungry with longing for a better world; when we stand vulnerable, having laid aside hatred and anger and the desire for vengeance, then our hearts beat most nearly to the rhythm of God’s heart. Because all of these, every one of the beatitudes, are simply variations on the theme of love.

And none more so than when we mourn. We mourn because we love; if we have not loved, we have nothing to mourn. We know that. What mother or father, mourning the death of a child, would wish the child had never been born – even as the grief tears their lives apart, they would not want to be rid of it at that price. Who among us, devastated by the death of a beloved partner, would think “I wish I’d never met him, so I wouldn’t be suffering now.” Of course we don’t want the grief; but we wouldn’t want to abandon the love that causes our grief.

Love and grief are flip sides of the same coin. It’s part of the deal. If God’s heart is infinite love towards this world – and the life and death of Jesus assure us that it is – then God looks on this world with infinite grief for the sufferings of his beloved creatures. Whenever we love, and grieve for what we love, we grieve in communion with God, who bears our griefs even more sharply than we feel them ourselves.

So let us not be afraid or ashamed of grief. Let us learn to embrace it. Not because suffering is good – if we think that we have gotten the wrong end of the stick altogether. And not because our grief is somehow not real and painful. But precisely because loss and death are real in this world, and there will be grief as long as there is love, let us accept the grief that comes our way, and let us reach out to share in each other’s pain. When you feel the pain of loving this world, you are truly closest to the heart of God. Blessed are you.