|Statue of Mary at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the old city of Jerusalem|
There are many ways to enter into a study of grief and it's important relationship to our celebration of Christ's triumph over sin and death—Easter—but death is typically the experience we most associate with grief. In more ways than I can enumerate here, I wish it weren't true, but over the past few years I've come to know more than I'd ever have imagined about grief.
Grief is the reaction we have to loss of all kinds, not just death, and it is never a simple, compact, linear process that disrupts and rearranges the heart, mind, and soul over and over again until it finds some sort of resolution or fixed comfort. That does not always happen in life. The more profound or traumatic the loss, the deeper and more complex the grief. No two people experience grief or move through it the same way. To the degree that various stages of grief can be qualified, they certainly cannot (and SHOULD NOT) be calendarized or measured as normal or abnormal. In sum, grief experiences are as personal and diverse as the people who go through them.
If you want some idea of what deep grief looks like, the best image I can relate it to is the ground zero site from the 9/11 terrorist attack.
Grief comes with debris, smoldering heaps, smoke, horror, disbelief, devastation, disruption, disarray, and people traipsing through it all—some searching for survivors, some trying to contain it, some trying to make the place safe, some lost and stunned, and so on. The debris includes human and material remains—some identifiable...some not. It does not get sorted out easily.
As I have come to think about grief in this way, I have also come to perceive a mother's grief over the death of a child as the deepest I can imagine. After all, when you consider the overwhelming bond and intimacy of carrying a child in the womb—a miraculous life coming into being in the most personal human space—it is difficult to think of a deeper bond than between a mother and her child...regardless of the child's age. And I cannot fathom a mother's grief more incredible than that of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
What is somewhat ironic to me is that in all the years that I'd identified myself as a Catholic, from childhood to young adulthood, I probably never gave much thought to Mary. But in the years since I have come to consider my Christian life through the lens of Protestant evangelicalism, Mary has been increasingly interesting to me. I have been sad to realize that the iconic Mary has somewhat over-simplified and diminished the human Mary whose experiences with life and death—joy and grief—surely spanned the heights, depths, and breadth of maternal thrill and bereavement.
The Old Testament introduces Mary in Isaiah 7:14...before she was even born!
"...Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."
Immanuel, God with us
By the time we actually meet Mary in the New Testament gospel accounts of Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection, she is a very real young woman who has a most INCREDIBLE experience. Check out what happened to her and see if you can imagine yourself in the scene. I can't speak for anyone else, but as I remember myself as a 16 or 17 year old girl I am quite convinced that I'd have been way beyond overwhelmed! As if being visited by an honest to goodness angel wouldn't be enough to blow your mind, being told that you're going to bear a child in a most mysterious manner, and that your child will be known as "Son of the Most High" would be enough to make you wonder if someone had slipped something into your grape juice to make you high!
In fact, Mary's supernatural high bursts out of her in a magnificat—a song of glorious praise and wonder.
Now, I don't want to speculate as to what was considered normal in ancient times, but I have trouble believing that young women being visited by angels, and having a glorious future (as the mother of God no less!) predicted for them, was really on the continuum of anyone's expectations...even Jewish girls raised with the books of the law and the prophets. But let me point out something that you may not have noticed as I contextualized Mary's life in order to introduce you to her grief. Did you notice that the angel, Gabriel, never tells Mary that her son's life will be in jeopardy from the moment he is born until he meets an untimely and horrifying death after only 33 years?
I feel very confident when I say that Mary never saw it coming. She may have found favor with God, and she may have been chosen to give birth to the savior of the world, but she was surely chosen because of her absolute ambiguity as much as anything else. When she came of an age to begin thinking about marriage and motherhood, I assure you she never imagined herself much differently than any other little Jewish girl of her time. She wasn't sitting on the edge of her bed every night waiting for Gabriel to show up and give her the good news.
Isaiah prophesies the crucifixion and death of the Messiah, but honestly by the time you get from Isaiah 7 to Isaiah 53, you've long forgotten about the reality of that virgin, Mary, who would have to witness her son's horrible and humiliating public execution. With these things in mind, imagine precious Mary after living 33 years with her most unusual son. By the time Jesus was betrayed by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane, Mary and her husband, Joseph, had been visited a few times by angels, forced to pack up and move out of and back into the country to protect their son's life, witnessed their child doing some truly incredible things, and they were probably the objects of quite a bit of gossip by the time Jesus began his public ministry.
I imagine a more grown up Mary as she comes to grips with the fact that her son's face is on the side of a milk carton and pasted up in the post office. In my mind's eye, I see her sitting alone, with her face in her hands and sobbing until she cannot breathe, while Joseph and the rest of the family are off somewhere. I can hear her crying out to God and wanting to know what ever happened to the magnificat—the blessed thrill of hope that would come with being chosen to bear God's son in a spectacular way never heard of before or since.
By the time dear Mary finds herself among the helpless onlookers to her son's crucifixion and death, she must have wondered how it had come to all this. I am more than certain that she was absolutely devastated. Talk about a let down and disappointment! Talk about living through a horror! And there, as she and her son's best friend, John, stood beside Jesus to the last, watching him die an agonizing death, she hears her precious son say, "Woman, behold your son!"
|John and Mary at the Cross of Jesus; artist Ed Odson|
And Jesus wasn't saying, "Look at me, Mom! Look at what I can do!" He was telling her, before she could even process what it would mean to live without her first born son, to take John as her son. If I'm Mary, or John for that matter, that's the point where I hear the needle scratch across the album, or the car screech to a halt. "You want me to do WHAT????"
Now, if you're thinking that Mary went through all that, plus 3 days of a virtual trauma/grief coma, and that the news of Jesus' resurrection meant the pain, suffering, and grief of her loss was over...If you think Martin Scorcese yelled, "That's a wrap!" you're not understanding the quintessential humanity of Mary. She was a regular mom who had lived a very extraordinary 33 years before spending the remainder of her days trying to make sense of it all...like any mother—past, present, or future. No mother is prepared to out-live her child.
If Mary's joy was supernaturally induced to the point of eliciting the world's most exuberant song, surely her sorrow was every bit as profound...resurrection or no resurrection. It's no surprise, then, that the statue of Mary inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre shows a woman with a vacant, lost, exhausted, and completely devastated expression. You can almost feel your own brow moisten with sweat and your heart grow faint. That's grief, folks, and even the very mother of Jesus was not spared its agonies.
Our beautiful savior who triumphed over sin and death did not do so without experiencing the full weight of sin and death—grief and sorrow—and I guarantee you that the only person who came close to feeling his agonizing trip through hell was his dear mother who lived to tell about it.
|The Pieta - Michelangelo Buonarroti's sculpture, housed in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City|
And perhaps that reality is the most important outcome of grief for all of us. We live to tell about it—to find the mercy in the mess, to become the story-keepers and storytellers of our dear one's lives, to use those stories as platforms from which to tell of our experiences for the sake and comfort of others, and to tell of greater joys to come when we too meet Jesus, and his mother, Mary, in heaven. If God is as merciful and wonderful as I believe He is, I well imagine beautiful Mary coming to heaven's gate and reuniting mothers—precious souls who've endured the unthinkable, unimaginable anguish of losing a child—with their cherished children who have been made whole, alive, and well under Mary's watchful eye and Jesus' loving sacrifice.
So...as you're preparing to enter Holy Week, take some time to think about the necessity of grief in order for you to receive your ultimate joy, and your greatest hope for the future.