“All this grief! My heart is utterly darkened… I was miserable and without joy,” wrote St. Augustine. The Psalmist put it differently,
“My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer,
and by night I find no rest.”
Shakespeare calls it,
“The grief that does not speak
whispers the o’erwraught heart
and bids it break.”
Many of us have lost loved ones. It has been twenty years since our little boy Andrew died of a cancerous brain tumor. As people told us to comfort us, “Life goes on,” but we have never gotten over his death. We think about him as he was then, a toddler, and how he would be each year had he lived. Now he would be in college and I often wonder what he would have been like, quiet and studious, outgoing and popular, athletic – well probably not that. We will never know. There has been an emptiness in our family since 1984.
Many of you have lost dear ones too. You know the experience of loss. Shock and disbelief are followed by numbness, depression, loneliness and lostness. The husband or wife, mother, father, grandparent, child, grandchild, is no longer there. There will be an empty spot at the holiday table and in the heart. Phil Williams writes in When a Loved One Dies,
“We may have been moving through a journey slowly, doing well,
and then the reality hits us – this death – hits again.
There is no going back,
there is no recapturing or retrieving what was lost.
Our loved one is gone.
The wounds open wide and we despair.”
There is an awful finality about death. Stephen Graham tells a story of a poor Russian peasant woman who was found sobbing on her husband’s grave, a whole year after his death. She clutched at the earth; poured out her soul in sobs, telling him that he must come back, that she needed him, that the children needed him, that she could not live without him. It is an exaggerated response because the tombstone speaks of the finality of death. The loved one is never coming back, never coming back. We are left with memories, photographs, mementos, that is all.
“Mrs. Hayes showed me through her home,” Phil Williams recounts, “a small ordinary house, one passes by without looking twice.” Why the tour?
“Mrs. Hayes’ husband had died and she wanted me to know what he had been and done.
“She also wanted to share her loneliness without calling it by that name.
“She pointed out his carpentry bench and tools, the pickles and beans they had canned together, the porch he had built, his favorite couch where he watched TV, their garden.
“As she spoke, her lips quivered, her eyes glistened and her body froze for a moment. Her loneliness spilled over her eyes and her voice as she reminisced.”
As the familiar prayer goes, “In the midst of life, we are in death…”
Early in the morning on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb of Jesus. John doesn’t tell us why she has gone – perhaps to stand at the grave and remember one she had loved. Tradition tells us that Mary Magdalene was a great sinner but that Jesus had forgiven her, accepted her, welcomed her into his circle of friends. We know she was possessed of seven demons that Jesus cast out to heal her. When Mary got to the tomb, she found the stone rolled away. In despair, she ran to Simon Peter. It seemed the final indignity, that Jesus’ tomb was despoiled. Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran to the tomb and found it empty. The grave linens were still there but not the body of Jesus. So far there is nothing to cheer us as we consider the losses we have had, the people gone from us, the broken circle and broken heart.
But we are not left there in the story. Easter morning is more than the sorrow of the disciples and the unexplained emptiness of the tomb. The meaning of Easter is much more for us that just memories blessed. Yes, God comforts us in our sorrows, blesses our memories and gives us strength and peace. It is part of the Christian message that death may end a life but does not end a relationship. A mother who lost her son put it this way, “All my loved wasn’t wrapped up in my son. He will be with me as part of me, but my love will not be limited. It never has been.” There is healing of pain and sorrow.
But this Easter morning the message is greater than that. For Mary Magdalene returned to the tomb. She found there two angels and one whom she did not recognize. He turned to her and said, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” She thought he was the gardener, but it was Jesus risen from the grave. He called to her, “Mary,” and she recognized him. The Lord had risen that first Easter morning and the world would never again be the same. Mary ran back to the disciples with the glorious news, “I have seen the Lord.” From that small group the Gospel would go to the corners of the earth even to this place, Eugene, Oregon. It has come down the centuries to us, now. Death, the final enemy, has been defeated. Those who have gone before us in faith are not really dead but alive in the Lord. We follow Christ to the cross and the tomb and then to everlasting life.
A.J. Gossip’s wife had died. This Scots minister had had a companionship with his wife that was evident to his congregation and all who saw them. When he returned to the pulpit for the first time after her death, his sermon title was “When life humbles one, what then?” The closing line of his sermon on crossing the river of grief would not be forgotten, “Be of good cheer, my brothers and sisters, for I feel the bottom and it is sound.”
“Let not your hearts be troubled,” Jesus said, “Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” Christ has gone before us to prepare a place for us in the Father’s house of many mansions. We are not left alone in the face of death, not for ourselves or those who have died. As Karl Heim tells it, A German sailor wrote his mother during World War II:
“If you should hear our cruiser has been sunk
and that no one has been saved,
do not weep.
The sea in which my body sinks
is also the hollow of the hand of my Savior,
from which nothing can separate me.”
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We are God’s people. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, nothing today, nothing tomorrow or ever. The tomb is empty. The grave clothes are lying there but Jesus’ body is not to be found. Christ is risen and lives and reigns eternally. Death is not the end for him or for us but eternal life. We do not mourn overmuch for those who die in Christ. We do not sorrow as people who have no hope. Christ is risen. Listen to St. Paul. His words are for you:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is thy sting?
O grave, where is thy victory?
Thanks be to God
who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Sin and sickness, depression and despair, pain and sorrow, even death itself have been destroyed. The tomb is empty. Christ is risen.