The Gift of Grief

A little over a year ago Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, was assassinated.  Bhutto had recently returned to her country following several years of exile.  She was a leading voice calling for democracy and change in Pakistan.  Following a large campaign rally, as many people crowded around her vehicle, shots rang out and a suicide bomber detonated a bomb.  Many of her supporters died along with her in the senseless violence. 

Photographs taken at the scene were on the covers of newspapers around the world.  The picture on the front of the New York Times from that day has etched itself in my memory.  A single man stands upright in the midst of the carnage.  All around him are charred vehicles and bodies.  Everything is burnt and ruined.  He stands in the middle of this destruction with his head turned up to heaven, his arms raised in despair and hopelessness, and his face twisted in a cry of grief and incomprehension.  Like Rachel from our text today, he refuses to be consoled.  His hope is gone. 

I don't know who that man was.  But his emotion is not hard to imagine.  It is the despair of a person who has been overwhelmed by senseless suffering.  It reminds me of the countless photos I have seen of women in the Middle East, often old women wearing veils and wailing with grief because a bomb has exploded, maybe detonated by a suicide bomber or maybe dropped by a foreign military.  Either way, an incomprehensible explosion has killed her children or her husband.  It is the same terror and abandonment that we saw on the faces of poor folk caught on rooftops or stuck in the Superdome after Katrina hit.  It is the confusion and hopelessness that we see in our papers and on the faces of neighbors as forces unseen cause money saved through hard work over long years to simply disappear.  It is the weeping and mourning that comes when a teen-ager dies or illness snatches someone away too young. 

Each of us in our lives at some dark point faces this grief.  We find this grief, this terror, this sense of "Why?" right in the middle of our text today.  We normally read this story at Christmas.  It's dramatized as an adventurous excursion in Jesus' early days.  And in the full flush of holiday spirit, I don't think we usually read this story very closely.  When Luke tells the Christmas story, everyone sings--the angels, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon.  But when Matthew tells us of the birth of Jesus, he begins by telling us about a woman who wept and would not be consoled.  In Matthew no one sings.  There is weeping instead. 

The way Matthew tells the tale, as soon as the wise men leave, Jesus becomes a refugee.  An angel comes to Joseph and says, "Quick, grab what you can, and run.  Go to Egypt.  Herod wants to kill your new child."  So Mary and Joseph grab what they can and run for their lives.  Imagine if you had to leave immediately.  What would you take?  What would you have to leave?  So they flee to Egypt.  And if we needed any more proof that Herod is violent and cruel, Matthew tells us that Herod is so angry at being fooled by the wise men he orders his troops to kill all of the children under two in the region.  Can you imagine?  All of the little boy babies, all of the toddlers in your town, rounded up and killed?  I can't begin to imagine.  Matthew says that Rachel is heard weeping.

Who is Rachel?  And why is she weeping?  Rachel was the wife of Jacob, from way back in the Old Testament.  She is the symbolic mother of Israel.  In Genesis she died in childbirth.  Tradition says that she was buried in Ramah, a town near both Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  Many years later, Jeremiah watches as his friends are exiled from their land by the Babylonians.  Describing the chaos of thousands of refugees fleeing for their lives, he says that Rachel, the mother of Israel, is weeping.  She will not be consoled, for her children are gone.  So as Matthew struggles to describe this senseless horror wrought by a new empire, Matthew remembers Rachel.  He remembers the grief of a woman who died in childbirth.  He remembers the tears of a people deported from their land.  He says Rachel still weeps.  She weeps for the grief of the world into which Jesus was born, a world in which a man can choose to kill all the babies in a city. 

These are the details we skip over at Christmas.  I have to admit--I'm kind of glad we do.  How on earth would we tell this story in our Christmas pageants?  Maybe it's better to look back at this story after Christmas when we have a little more time for reflection.  Maybe it would be worth it to read the stories of Jesus' birth regularly, throughout the year.  Perhaps we could disconnect it from all of the hustle and bustle of the season and really hear the shockingly good news that Jesus is born.  God dwells with us and salvation comes to this world.  Jesus is the light of the world, a light the darkness has never conquered.  We need that light throughout the year.  And we also need to see these darker shades of meaning that Matthew includes, darkness that can be hard to see with Christmas lights all aglow.  Because I think Matthew is saying that in order to embrace the light of Christ, we must also see the darkness.  Before we turn on a light, we have to realize we're sitting in the dark.  Before we can welcome Jesus into our hearts and the world, we have to see that we are desperately in need of salvation.  This story tells us that when we see the reality of suffering in this world, when we grieve and cannot be consoled because we are faced with the brokenness of this world, that is when salvation begins. 

In the 70s and 80s pop psychology proclaimed, "I'm okay, and you're okay."  Someone once imagined Jesus hearing this on the cross.  His response was, "If I'm okay and you're okay, what am I doing up here on this cross?"  The truth is, we are not okay.  The world is not okay.  If it was, we would not need salvation, we would not need Jesus. 

Matthew is convinced that his world is not okay.  Jesus was born into a world of violence and uncertainty.  He was a refugee before he could walk.  All of the kids who would have grown up to be his playmates were killed by a power-hungry, paranoid dictator.  From the earliest moments of his life, Jesus is in conflict with, is a threat to, the order of the day--an order of war, violence, and death. 

And rather than skip right to the miracles and wedding parties, Matthew gives his readers space to grieve for the darkness in their lives.  Rachel's weeping is at the center of this story, standing firm and refusing to be consoled.  She bears testament to the grief and suffering of all people.  In her weeping we are reminded of those mothers who die in childbirth, those people who are deported from their land and living in exile, and children who are killed senselessly.  In her weeping, we hear the sound of our own grief, our world's grief. 

So often with grief we want it to end.  We want to cover it up and get over it.  But Rachel refuses to be comforted.  She stands strong in her weeping, and Matthew honors that.  Why?  Why does Matthew honor that?  Isn't this a story about good news?  I think Matthew honors Rachel's grief because there is a hope only God can give.  Sometimes tragedy is so overwhelming that there are no adequate human answers, and we must wait with Rachel for an answer from God.  To wait, refusing false or fleeting comfort, is an act of faith.  And in Rachel we see that to weep is to stand humbly and faithfully before God waiting for an answer.  For Matthew, Jesus is the only answer to her grief--in Jesus, God casts God's lot with us, promising to abide with us until that day when every tear is wiped away.  Salvation and comfort begins with Rachel's grief, with Rachel's honest response to the brokenness of the world. 

Grief breaks us down and wears us out.  It is scary.  We take on all manner of fixations and neuroses and addictions just to avoid grief.  We try to run away, to wall ourselves off, but in doing this we become hard and brittle.  As Anne Lamott puts it, "The lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place."  Yes, grief is terrifying.  It opens us up and exposes the raw and tender places within us, but it is also cleansing.  It softens us, makes us more compassionate, more human.  In talking about the death of her dear friend, Anne Lamott goes on to say, "I'm pretty sure that it is only by experiencing that ocean of sadness in a naked and immediate way that we come to be healed."  Anne Lamott, I think, is saying what Matthew is saying.  In grieving, salvation begins.

Salvation begins in grief because it opens us to a new way.  Once we realize that the way things are is not humane, is not with God's will, then we can begin to look for a new way.  Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs base their approach on this truth.  Until we recognize that an addiction is killing us, we will not look for another way.  Just as we won't turn on a light until we realize the room is dark, so we won't imagine a new way until we realize that our old way is broken.  Grief has the potential to show us that brokenness. 

Herod's genocide, Jesus as a refugee and Rachel's grief show us that Matthew's community desperately needed salvation.  They needed Jesus.  He is still needed.  We are still standing in need of salvation.  When we face the brokenness in our lives, our relationships, our community in our world, when we grieve for our sins and also for the seemingly senseless suffering we encounter, when we refuse to be consoled by any false hope, we come close to God.  We begin the work of salvation.  Even as we weep for wars we wage, for the terror which fills our world, for hunger and homelessness, for addiction and relationships which are faltering, even as we weep in the midst of all this, the Christ child is born.  The good news is that our weeping softens us, opens us, and allows us to imagine new ways of peace, a new world of trust, a land of abundance and justice, relationships which are whole and holy.  The good news is that we do not weep or dream in vain. 

Even as we weep, Matthew says, listen, there is the news.  A child is born, a child named Jesus, He is the salvation of the world.  As we wrestle with the dark, we are able to invite the light of the world into our lives.  By the grace of God we can imagine new ways of life, ways of peace, of justice, of kindness.  It takes courage to stand with Rachel, to see the world honestly, to grieve and to refuse to be distracted.  But there is consolation.  The story does not end with Rachel weeping; it begins!  This story is the beginning of salvation.  When we see the world honestly and mourn for what is broken, we open space for the savior to enter in once more.  Weeping is never the end of our story, and refusing to be comforted by false hope is a holy action. The good news of the gospel is that while we are still sinners, while the world is still broken, while we yet weep, God loves us and sends us a child.  There is a hope that only God can give.  That hope is the salvation of the world. Jesus Christ is born and salvation has come to us.  Thanks be to God. 

Will you pray with me?

God of comfort, who holds us as a mother holds her child, we ask for courage, we ask for courage to see clearly, we ask for the courage to grieve, we ask for the courage to refuse false comfort, and, O God, we ask for trust so that even as we weep, we will still trust your promise of comfort and hope.  And we pray in expectant hope, longing for that day when you will wipe every tear away.  O God, we pray all of this, rejoicing in and trusting in the name of Jesus, who even now dwells with us.  Amen.