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Weighing Anguish on Scales: Christian Grief and Mourning

June 2, 2013

In America, we don’t like sadness.  We are taught to walk around with smiles on our faces all the time, to “put on a happy face” and to appear cheerful every moment of our lives.

This cultural attitude is embedded into Christian culture, particularly Evangelical Christian culture, where being saved often means “being happy and successful all the time.”

This attitude is particularly curious at funerals.  When my aunt, God rest her soul, died two years ago, she forbade everyone from wearing black at her funeral, because she said that she was going home to heaven, and so we should be happy.  She, in a sense, forbade her husband and children from expressing their grief at a funeral.  Thus, she used religion to make grief, something normal and natural, into something grossly unnatural.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently, since I attended a wake for one acquaintance, and sat Shiva for another friend.  Neither friend was over forty, one friend had yet to turn 30.   This was the first time I had observed the passing of young people, and I realized fully how shallow and silly the fear of grief is among some American Christians.

Sometimes, grief looks like this.

This is a close up on the Virgin Mary in Michelangelo’s Pieta.  In Michaelangelo’s famous sculpture, the Mother of Sorrows looks completely at peace as she holds her Son’s body.

However, at other times, grief looks like this.

The figures in this image are not peaceful.  They are in shock, confused, horrified even.  It makes no sense to them, and in their grief they reject the death of Christ.  They weep, they throw their hands towards heaven, they cry out.

Christians in past ages were not afraid of grief.  Think of Verdi’s Libera Me from his Requiem Mass.

The music is filled with fire and brass, anguish and drums.  It is music of terror and anger, and then suddenly, in the middle, it stops.  It slows down.  The soprano’s voice aches.  It is the music of pain and sorrow.  It is full of agony.

For the second friend, I attended Shiva, and was struck by how the Jews embrace the feeling of grief.  When Jews observe Shiva, they do not run from grief, they embrace it, even if they are not feeling particularly sad.   Jewish laws of mourning requires that the mourners tear a piece of clothing at the grave, and wear it throughout Shiva.  The mourners are forbidden from engaging in sexual relations, Torah study, and even personal grooming.  (The widower’s face was grizzled and unshaven when I saw him.)  They embrace the idea that grief disrupts life.  They are not afraid of sorrow.

Christians in America can learn much from earlier Christians and Jews, and indeed from Gandalf, who told the Hobbits at the end of Return of the King, “I will not say do not weep, for not all tears are an evil.”



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