“To comfort all who mourn, all who grieve in Zion.” (Isaiah 61:2). . .To bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes; to anoint them with the oil of joy, dress them in a garment of praise.
“Blessed are they that mourn.”
Gregory of Nyssa says it is impossible to look on things as they really are down here, without tears. John Chrysostom notes, of this same passage from the Beatitudes, that it says, “mourns.” It does not say, for instance, “sorrows.” Christ does not mean those who are sad, but those who are grieving. The passage of anticipation from Isaiah makes clear the condition, by its opposites.
“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.”
This third of the Beatitudes has, in my view, a special rhetorical place in the series. I imagine it as spoken, by Jesus. The first and second would have been shocking enough, to the crowd suggested in the gospel of Matthew: “multitudes” who had heard about him, many of whom came from great distances, propelled perhaps more by curiosity than by faith.
The Sermon on the Mount begins, as any address, with a salutation. Any public speaker feels the need of this: to begin, “Ladies and gentlemen,” or however. Some formality is required, when speaking to an audience of strangers. It is a bow, a how-do-you-do. One is acknowledging, naming them.
To whom is Christ speaking? He begins with a benediction upon those who are poor in spirit.
He has begun with what for an ancient Hebrew audience, or for any audience in the ancient world, would be a rather shocking inversion. He has started at the bottom instead of at the top. Under the influence of Christianity, through twenty centuries, we may not fully appreciate today how shocking that was, what an affront to expectations.
One shoe has been dropped. And then another: “Blessed are the meek.” Blessed are the people in the back rows, the ones who knew their place, who couldn’t be sure whether they were welcome. Blessed are the very people who know they don’t count, and stand aside politely to make way for the people who do count.
I am emphasizing here a fact about the Beatitudes that is so obvious, for its time and place, that it may actually pass over the modern reader’s head. Namely, the parts of a salutation. Jesus has begun by greeting those whom he recognizes in the crowd: the poor, the meek. The last, first. I should think by then he has everyone’s attention.
Jesus Wept by James Tissot (c. 1890)
“Blessed are they that mourn. . .”
In many languages, there is a singular, and also a dual. In every language, I should think, the third is where plurality really begins. This is the point in the salutation where Jesus signals that he is going to go on, that he is going to go on and on, that the wheel is now turning. He is going to pile aphorism upon aphorism, he is going to leave his audience spinning.
When I first thought seriously about the Sermon on the Mount, that is what struck me. It still strikes me. Like a member of that audience, my response begins, “What do you mean, blessed are they that mourn? These are the people who beyond any doubt are not blessed. Everyone knows this who has ever seen a dead man, with those who loved him. They are not blessed. They are desolate.”
Don’t laugh. . . .This used to be the first instruction at a funeral. Don’t look too happy. Even if the corpse once belonged to a hated rival, this is not the moment to gloat. De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. If you’ve nothing nice to say, say nothing.
At this level, so far as I am aware, there was no difference between human cultures. Only quite recently has the notion of “be happy” entered even into the funeral parlors: the happy-face sprayed over everything today, as a kind of vandalism on the human condition. Within what remains of Christendom, it is part of the assault: looking past the Crucifixion to get at the Resurrection as a kind of instant gratification. It is of a piece with, “Everyone goes to heaven.”
Eventually, we are all reminded that, in this world, there is no pleasure without pain; perhaps even that our various schemes for “pain management” are having an unintended effect. We are reducing ourselves to pure pleasure-seekers, who can find no pleasure.
Grief, mourning have at their best the aspect of lamentation, for the lost good. In the old liturgy of Holy Church, the Propers through Lent sparkle with this lamentation, turned in that strangely paradoxical Christian way: upwards, upwards. But we are carrying a corpse. It weighs.
“For they shall be comforted.”
In this third Beatitude, Christ has turned the tables yet again. Who is to comfort? Who can? What is so large that it could equal or exceed what has been taken away?
There is nothing so poignant as our earthly ashes. I noticed this again this past year in carefully attending the last “during” and first “after” of my own mother. There she was, and here she is no more. There was nothing vague about her, while she was still around. There is nothing vague now about her absence. Years I spent, watching her go down, almost expecting to find relief (“closure”) at the end of it. Instead I found what I was not expecting: a terrible sense of loss, and of my own aloneness. For in her decline, I had come to love her more.
It was Christ who conferred this Blessing, right in the stopped heart of death. It was Christ who led us down the Via Dolorosa, carrying his Cross as our lure. It is Christ whose Lent is the necessary preamble to joy: for He did not consent to being crucified as an end in itself.