THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT: BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO SORROW

Blessed.  The word is translated “happy.”  That is important to remember as we ponder the teachings uttered on the mountaintop.  To have heard Jesus say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and now to hear, “Blessed are those who sorrow,” must perplex those sitting in awe and trying to absorb the instructions that will for the bases of the New Way.  There will have to be time and continued exposure as well as periods of contemplation to understand.  The fact is, Jesus is initiating a New Creation and, in the process, he is turning the old order upside down.  The danger is to think too soon that one knows what Jesus is talking about.  If his words fit too easily into one’s scheme of things, one can be sure that that one has not felt the full challenge of what Jesus is calling his disciples to do and to be.

The first half of each of the Beatitudes, the “Blessed” part, must stun first hearers seated at Jesus’ feet in rapt attention.  Some of those have already decided to throw their lot in with Jesus.  Being a disciple will mean striving to walk in his ways.  Disciples have begun to believe that through Jesus the Kingdom is coming, and with that Kingdom will come power and prosperity.

Others in the assembly still search, still wonder, and have not yet been able to make that decision.  To this point they may well have been in desperate straits, wondering where they could turn to find meaning and direction in their lives.  These will hang on every word, hoping to have what we would call an “aha” moment that will convince so that they too could become disciples and be part of his realm.

It is important to notice that at no time does Jesus make the decision to believe easy.  Just the opposite is the case.  It is almost as if Jesus is saying, “Are you sure you want to do this?”  And this before they had seen the end of the beginning.

So we hear, “Blessed are those who sorrow.”  Another way of saying that is, “Happy are the sorrowing; happy are those who mourn.”  What is Jesus breaking open for us?  Through what new filter is he challenging us to view our life and our times?

Mourning is a frequent state of mind in the Hebrew Bible.  The Prophets mourned over Israel’s infidelity as they watched the chosen people forsake the Law and the One God and began to follow Baal and the other gods of the gentiles among whom they lived.  The Prophets sorrowed over the exploitation by the rich and the powerful of the poor, the orphans, and the widows.  The people mourned as they watched the destruction of the Holy City, Jerusalem.  They mourned as they were led into captivity.  “By the trees of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered you, O Zion,” the psalm prays.  Jesus will weep over the restored city because the people would not heed his call: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who stone the Prophets and kill those who are sent to you, how often I would have gathered you to myself, as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not.”  And he would grieve at the death of his friend, Lazarus.

Sorrowing, mourning, and grieving are parts of the human condition.  No one who cares for others can live long before experiencing a situation that evokes those reactions.  They will know what it means to be plunged into a long, dark night in the midst of which they will wonder if they will ever see the dawn of hope again in their lives.  A kin to depression, it is in reality the long, dark night of the soul that gives rise to a terrible longing that only God can fill.

Some years ago, it was forbidden that photographers take pictures of flag-draped coffins of the war-dead as the bodies were returned to these shores for burial.  If we did not see the reality we would not admit to the horror, and we would not have to mourn the fallen.  Not recognizing the toll, it would seem all the more possible that soon we would be the victors, divinely appointed as we were in the bloody exchange.  We need to see those coffins.  We need to see the brokenhearted parents and spouses and children.  To join in their mourning is salutary and can help in the change of perspective.

There is one way to make sure that you will not have to mourn and that is to choose not to love.  If, however, you choose to love another, that one becomes one over whom one day you could mourn.   Husband or wife may have to mourn and survive the spouse.  Children mourn the death of their parents, albeit in due time when full lives have been lived.  Sometimes a parent dies suddenly, far from a fullness of years, and grief intensifies.  There is the terrible sorrow that comes when parents have to bury their children.  Deaths of friends, the end of relationship, the failing health of those once strong bring us up short and challenge our core beliefs.

This year we have been confronted with the phenomenon of natural disaster.  Tornadoes, floods, and violent storms have destroyed towns and washed away victims.  Earthquakes level poorly constructed buildings entrapping some and killing many.  People grieve individually and collectively.  Sometimes we respond.  Sometimes we look away.

Why does Jesus say, “Happy are those who mourn?”  Precisely because of the emptiness that mourning brings.  But mourning is not an end in itself.  Those who mourn can be happy when mourning leads the mourner beyond the sorrowing state.

The whole Rite of Christian Burial acknowledges the reality of death and the sorrow it brings to the survivors.  Those who come together as church to celebrate the ritual are embraced by the signs and symbols that speak much more of life than they do of death.  The Rite begins even before Death has claimed the loved one.  Family and friends, indeed the whole Church, all gather around to pray over and anoint with Holy Oil the one who is dying.  Why?  There is a belief that something more than what can be seen. There is a conviction in faith that death is not an end or a victor to anything more than life as it is lived in this world.  Faith tells those gathered that this one will rise again in the Lord who conquered death forever.

The casket is draped with a funeral pall and the faithful recognize the baptismal garment that the now deceased one was clad in when s/he came out of the Waters, having died there to sin and everything that separates one from God.  The baptized are identified with Christ and are destined to live in God’s love forever.

An Easter Candle stands burning by the coffin.  That Candle was carried into the dark church in the course of the Easter Vigil to proclaim that Christ is alive in the Resurrection.  Those gathered celebrate Eucharist, giving thanks and renewing the Lord’s dying and rising, even as they are reminded that those who eat this bread and drink from this cup will live forever, “and I will raise them up on the Last Day.”  Death, where is your sting?

Some may think that there is something therapeutic in telling a mourner to “get over it and get on with your life.”  I don’t agree.  Mourning is a process.  Weeping is part of it.  In the process those who grieve let out terrible pain.  Remember the state of mourning that Jesus says is happy.  That results when the mourner experiences the darkness and the emptiness resulting from the loss of someone who was an integral part of one’s life, and accepts the fact that no one else can fill that void.  The happiness comes from the conviction that God will wipe away every tear, embrace the mourner with love, and help him/her to live in hope that one day the one mourned and the mourner will be together in the Resurrection on the Last Day.

A challenge for believers is to be signs that inspire that hope.  It is not enough to look on with pity.  It is not enough to weep for those who suffer loss.  Believers must respond with compassion and like the Eucharist they celebrate allow themselves to be broken and poured out in loving service of those who grieve.  They must weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn and support with love.  Bringing meals in the initial days of sorrow is one response.  Sitting with and listening to the one mourning and resisting the temptation to say, “I know just how you feel” is another.  No two people mourn in the same way.  And there is no time limit on the mourning process.  The love and support of fellow believers will assist as the bereaved experience the grace that will empower them to go on.

St. James said, “If a brother or sister has noting to wear and no food for the day, and you say to them, ‘Goodbye and good luck!  Keep warm and well fed,’ but do not meet their bodily needs, what good is that?”  It is not enough to mourn for those who suffer loss as a result of natural disasters.  We have the collective and individual responsibility to support them with more than our prayers and good wishes.

Pope Paul VI said that we do not have a right to excess when there are those who lack the essentials.  That is an adaptation of the Beatitudes and can be very hard to hear.  Faith in Jesus demands that we recognize those suffering to be our brothers and sisters.

(An aside: could the Holocaust have happened had the German people recognized their Jewish neighbors as brothers and sisters?  The humanity of the Jews had to be denied in order to carry out the atrocities against them.  Would the Ku Klux Klan have been able to wreck their havoc on their black brothers and sisters, hanging them from the nearest gibbet?

We are what we are, sons and daughters of our God, brothers and sisters in the Lord.)

A final consideration.  Many of the saints prayed for the gift of tears.  They prayed for the grace to see and understand their sins so that they could truly repent.  This is not a prayer for the “grace” to wallow in self-pity, much less to see one’s sins as unforgivable.  If the truth be known, most people find their own sins understandable.  It is the sins of others, those sins they would never be tempted to commit, that are unforgivable.  The gift of tears enables us to see the horror of our sins and to know that they are forgiven.  Repentance means to turn away from sin, to mourn them, if you will, and to believe in the Good New, to live the Gospel practically as one who is forgiven.

So, we hear again: Blessed too are the sorrowing.  We rejoice because we believe the sorrowing will be consoled by the God who loves unconditionally and forever those who allow God to light the darkness and fill the emptiness with which mourning threatens to break us.  And we believe that Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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