The British Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, walks us through his intense grief after his wife, Joy Davidman, died from breast cancer. They were married just four years. His book, A Grief Observed, has been a companion of mine most of my ministerial life since grief has peered through every window and knocked on every door. The book, a roadmap through the internal and external highways of loss, demonstrates one man’s clear observation of his sorrow. Lewis says:
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep swallowing …. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet, I want the others to be about me …. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”
Grief has physical, social, emotional and life changing consequences. So when we listen to the Resurrection stories so beautifully proclaimed this Easter season, we must be keenly aware that the followers of Christ: his inner circle of twelve, his missionaries, the women and men who knew the touch of his love and forgiveness …. they are all experiencing levels of penetrating grief. It is the invisible blanket between the world and them. The losses were great: loss of a friend and teacher, loss of a dream, loss of the adventure it was to walk with Jesus, loss of purpose, loss of hope, loss of courage, not to mention the inner condemnation some felt when they left their beloved friend in the hour of his greatest need. “Truly I say to you (Peter) that this very night, before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times (Mt. 26:34).” And again, “You will all fall away because of Me this night, for it is written, ‘I will strike down the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered.’ (Mt. 26: 31).”
It was a dreaded time fraught with unfathomable sorrow.
When the empty tomb was discovered, so many reactions surfaced. All of them tendered in the fertile earth of grief and surprise. All of them pushing Jesus’ friends to that leap of belief that would launch the early Church. Jesus needed to break through, not only the tomb which held him, but into their strange psychic mourning with all its symptoms. For you and for me, we know the outcome of the Resurrection of the Lord. He is Risen! And today we sing our Alleluias with full voice. But the followers of Jesus came to faith incrementally. So the strange mix of appearances that we will be hearing about over the next weeks, though they vary from Gospel to Gospel, will take us down the labyrinth called “fight for faith.”
So here is an overview.
Mary of Magdala witnesses the empty tomb and runs to tell Peter. She thinks the body of the Lord has been stolen. Peter sees the empty tomb as Mary described it, but leaves. The Beloved disciple sees the empty tomb and “believes.” Mary of Magdala returns to the tomb alone and finds two angels there. She weeps. Jesus encounters Mary and asks why she is weeping; and thinking Jesus is the gardener, begs to know where the body of the Lord is. Jesus calls her by name, “Mary.” Mary is pulled from the dungeon of grief and comes to faith. She runs back to her brothers and tells them: “I have seen the Lord (Jn. 20: 18)!” identifying her today as the Apostle to the Apostles.
Yet, Jesus knows how to introduce himself to his beloved friends with the compassion of a true shepherd. In the heart of their resistant struggle, he calms them all when he breaks into their fear, saying: “Peace be with you.” He breathes upon them and gives them the Holy Spirit. For Peter, the one whose head hung in morbid guilt, Jesus cooks breakfast for him on the shores of the Sea of Tiberius, inviting him back from the fishing industry to the greater mission. To the women who have come to the tomb to anoint Jesus, he appears and he allows them to hold him. To the two disciples leaving Jerusalem on the way to Emmaus, he gives them time and a listening ear, enlightening them about the Scriptures. He breaks bread with them. To Thomas he offers his wounds to touch. To trust. For the Beloved disciple, Jesus raises him up as the model of pure faith.
For Jesus, there was no blame, no self-pity, no harsh words as he left the tomb to find his own. Only love. In all, but Judas, there arose new faith, Easter faith, breaking the seal of grief. Perhaps more remarkable than Christ, who broke out of the tomb, was the believing community which broke through the darkness of doubt and fear. Light shone brightly that day!
C.S. Lewis entered a faith crisis after Joy died. But he realized over time: “God has not been trying an experiment on my faith or love in order to find out their quality. He knew it already. It was I who didn’t.” (A Grief Observed).
(Matestic is a retired pastoral associate, teacher, writer and spiritual director in Milwaukee.)