We continue with our series on the Beatitudes. Today we examine our Lord’s words, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”.
It is safe to say that the secular world today does not have much time for mourning. It rejects the idea that any might embrace mourning, sadness, grief, or sorrow and devote themselves to it as a kind of blasphemy against the Good Life. Without much reflection secularism devotes itself to the dogma which says, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”, and it is repelled by the thought of mourning as a tragic waste of precious time. We must make the most of the brief time given to us and gather rosebuds while we may. There is no time to mourn. Mourning is classed with depression as one of the things to be avoided at all costs.
This Good Life of eating, drinking, and being merry is, of course, easier to do if you live in the affluent first world, and have lots of money—or at least enough money for beer, pizza, and Netflix. We in North America often forget that countless thousands in the world have no resources to buy the Good Life—or even a moderately okay life consisting of more than one meal a day. The world, stuffed full of people who are poor by contemporary western standards, has always found it comparatively easy to mourn, especially given that mourning is inevitable. To gain a bit of historical perspective, let us remember that until relatively recently all human beings lived with a high infant mortality rate and without the benefit of anaesthetic. In fact some historians reckon that childbirth was about as dangerous for women as the battlefield was for men. You were not guaranteed to eventually die in labour, but it was a distinct possibility, and many women did. Such reflections serve to put our view of the human condition in proper perspective.
There is, in fact, much to mourn over in this life, even for us modern North Americans. It was even more so in the ancient world. Most of the misery then was rooted in the fact that most of the wealth was owned by the proverbial 1%, who were intent upon keeping it. (Have things changed that much?) These elites could grind the face of the poor, crush out their hopes, and treat them like so much human ballast, and there was nothing the poor could do about it—except mourn.
That is perhaps why there is so much mourning and lamentation in the Psalter—as well as imprecations against the wicked and the rich. Indeed, you don’t have to get very far into the Psalter before the lamentation begins: Psalm 3 exults that God will break the teeth of the wicked, Psalm 4 laments that men love lying, in Psalm 6 the psalmist tells us that every night he drenches his bed with tears, Psalm 7 protests that the wicked persecute him unjustly, Psalm 9 looks for the day when the hope of the poor shall not perish forever, Psalm 10…well, you get the idea. The Psalter represents not just the hymnal of Israel and the Church, but also offers a poignant snapshot of the common man everywhere, and constitutes a thick dossier documenting human suffering. There is plenty of mourning in the Psalter, because there is plenty of mourning in the human race.
That of course included the disciples of Jesus. As previously said, most of His followers were poor and powerless, because then as now, most people in the world were poor and powerless. That meant that mourning was inevitable. Rich people could deal with their suffering by offering bribes to those who could make their problem go away, or (if that failed) by consoling themselves with tables of rich food and gallons of wine. Kings could deal with their suffering in the same way, and also by making war on other kings to obtain even more wealth. The average man dealt with his suffering by mourning, because that was all he could do.
Since most of us in the affluent West are rich (at least by the standards of history) we can afford to console ourselves by stuffing ourselves with food and drink and by distracting ourselves with entertainment. But this is hardly the answer. When we stop racing through life long enough to reflect, we discover that food, wine, and Netflix are not sufficient to assuage the sorrows that afflict us. For all our wealth, we are still little people, powerless before forces we can neither understand nor control. We have a choice: we can do more binge-watching on Netflix or we can turn to God, bringing our sorrow to Him. A wise man will choose the latter.
Mourning then is simply recognition that all life in this age is lived within a vale of tears. We have little joy, and what we have is too soon taken from us by death. And arguably we have even less joy now in the modern West than our ancestors did, for our ancestors would sing as they worked, the men singing work songs in the fields and the women singing hymns as they baked their daily bread, and no one sings as they work now. Mourning is therefore not pathological; it is simply a recognition that all is vanity, as the writer of Ecclesiastes told us in his brief 12-chapter treatise.
But this Beatitude proclaims that it will not always be so. Grief will not have the final word, nor will mourning last forever. If we follow Christ, our final state will be one of joy, not grief, and the mourning will give way to dancing and to laughter (Psalm 30:11, Luke 6:21). Eventually God will wipe away all tears from our eyes, and take every last bit of pain from our hearts. Those who mourn will be comforted.
And this comfort will be no mild muted thing. It will not be like the hug we give a tearful child in pain when we try to comfort them in their distress. The word used here is the Greek parakaleo, which implies a reversal of situation. Thus when Abraham spoke to the rich man who was suffering in Hades, he said that Lazarus, after suffering miserably during his lifetime, was being “comforted here”—as indeed he was, feasting in riotous joy at the head table, seated next to Abraham in the first place of honour.
That is the comfort the disciples of Jesus are promised in exchange for their mourning. It is as one medieval Christian mystic said: in that day, “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well”. We need not fear mourning, but should bring our sorrows to Jesus, the healer of hearts. We will find comfort in the Kingdom soon enough.
Next: Blessed are the meek.