Blessed are they who mourn – Dr N.T. Wright

‘In some languages,’ said the linguistics lecturer, ‘a double negative means a negative; in some languages a double negative means a positive. But in all languages, a double positive means a positive. There are no languages in which a double positive means a negative.’
And a voice from the back row called out, ‘Yeah, yeah.’

We have become the ‘Yeah, yeah’ culture. ‘Don’t try to take us in; we’ve heard it all before; it’s all promises, promises, spin and no substance.’ And there are many things in our world where that reaction, sadly, seems all too appropriate.
And I suspect the only reason why Jesus’ Beatitudes don’t come in for the same treatment is that we hear them as a kind of religious wallpaper: someone may have thought about it one stage but now we take it for granted. A pleasing background noise, murmuring its sotto voce blessings while the business of the room goes on unaffected. But in Jesus’ day, and to anyone who reads them seriously today, the Beatitudes surely cry out for the ‘yeah, yeah’ treatment. ‘Blessed are the poor? Blessed are the meek? The persecuted, the pure in heart, the merciful, the peacemakers?’ Yeah, yeah, give me a break: it sounds like the revenge of the no-hopers: we haven’t made it in the present world, so we’ll detach ourselves, escape into a private piety, and hope for a better future by and by in the sky.
And if you think that’s what Jesus meant – and, sadly, there have been many Christians, not to mention non-Christians, who have seen it like that – then the decline of faith seems inevitable. Swinburne’s picture of the pale Galilean, or Nietzsche’s critique of wimpish Christianity, seem to have their finger on the button. And today’s world of politics, business, the arts, the media – wherever you look, they’ve all gone along for the ride. ‘Jesus? Yeah, yeah.’

But this is, of course, a way of avoiding the sharp and dangerous challenge that Jesus’ words present. He is saying what millions then and now desperately want to hear, and could hear if only his followers would get off their whatevers and do what he said. He is saying, ‘Let me tell you: this world could be different. Actually, it’s going to be different. It’s going to be turned upside down – or rather, it’s going to be turned the right way up. And that process is starting right now! Why don’t you get on board and help make it happen?’ That was, and is, the challenge of Jesus’ preaching, and if this were a lecture rather than a sermon it would be fun to explore it in much more detail.

But tonight we reach one of the best known and loved of the Beatitudes: ‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.’ If you know Brahms’s German Requiem you may be able to imagine the wonderful opening chorus which sets those words: Selig die Trauernden, denn sie werden getröstet werden. A lovely word, getröstet; Trost, with echoes of our ‘trust’, a word which says ‘here is something you can rely on, lean on, find fresh strength from’. And ‘strength’ is of course what our word ‘comfort’ is all about. Comforting someone doesn’t mean explaining that things aren’t as bad as they seem. They often are, or even worse. Comfort is what happens when someone comes alongside and gives you strength. How that happens is one of the mysteries of human life and love.

All that is implied in this Beatitude, but it goes much further. When God turns the world the right way up, declares Jesus, then those who presently have nothing but grief in their hearts will find comfort, not simply because someone has come alongside them but because the world will be put to rights at last. And when that happens, death itself, the great bringer of mourning, will be overthrown. This ancient Jewish hope, which is not the same as the cyclic myths of reincarnation that we find scattered across the ancient near east, but is a hope for an eventual future in which, as John Donne insisted, ‘death shall be no more’ – this hope insisted that one day the creator God would make a new world, new heavens and new earth, and would raise people to a new and immortal bodily life to live in it, to look after it, to fill it with justice and joy. And Jesus’ promise of God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven means just that: that this tired, battered old world will be renewed from top to bottom, not thrown away, leaving us as mere disembodied spirits in a non-spatio-temporal heaven, but given a new, incorruptible bodily existence in comparison with which our present life is like a passing cloud. That is the promise of God’s kingdom; and that is the promise which undergirds, and comes to sharp expression in, the full set of Beatitudes.

So what do we say about mourning, about death and what lies beyond, about God’s promises to renew all things and us along with them?

First, get clear on the shape of Christian hope. For many modern Western Christians, the idea of a still future resurrection of the dead has retreated, and in its place has come simply the language of heaven: you die, you go to heaven, and that’s it. But the hope of the earliest Christians, and of many in non-Western traditions to this day, is for an eventual bodily resurrection. That’s what Paul is talking about in the spectacular passage we heard as our second lesson. When God will be all in all, in the new world over which Jesus will rule as king, then all those who belong to Jesus will be raised to share in it and indeed to rule over it. That’s the promise. And therefore, rather to our surprise, the early Christian writers aren’t very interested (as we are very interested) in where or indeed what people are immediately after their death, in between their death and the final resurrection. St Paul says simply, ‘My desire is to depart and be with Christ, which is far better’. Jesus himself speaks of going ahead to prepare lodgings for us – not our eventual home, because our eventual home will be God’s new creation, not some heavenly mansion.

Once we get this straight, we are given back a proper acceptance of grief, of mourning. Jesus doesn’t say we shouldn’t mourn; he says, ‘Blessed are the mourners’. If the person who has died has simply ‘gone to heaven’, then for many Christians mourning seems inappropriate. When my father-in-law died, my mother-in-law, as a devout Christian, believed that since he was now in heaven we shouldn’t be sad and cry, but should celebrate. So she did. Eighteen months later, her only and beloved daughter emigrated to Canada, and she wept bitterly for a fortnight. That parting, itself sad but not that sad, brought to the surface at last all her previously buried and undealt-with grief.

In a key passage, St Paul doesn’t say that Christians shouldn’t grieve; he says we shouldn’t grieve in the manner of people who have no hope. There is such a thing as hope-less grieving; and there is, thank God, such a thing as hope-ful, or we might say hope-filled, grieving. That is part of the Christian paradox, and indeed hope-filled grieving could stand as a metaphor for what the wise Christian thinks when looking out at this entire world the way it is, filled with bitterness and violence, with injustice, oppression and every kind of human misery. The Lamentations of Jeremiah, from which our first reading came, could stand as a heading for an appropriate Christian viewpoint on the world: grief, with powerful hope at the middle of it.

During my first year as Chaplain here, our much-loved Head Porter, Ray Smith, died quite suddenly and quite young. His daughter was my scout on Staircase 3. I was preparing to take the funeral, and she told me she wouldn’t come to it. Why on earth not, I said, of course you must come. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I know I’ll just cry and cry.’ ‘That’s precisely why you must come,’ I said. That’s what a funeral is for, and don’t let anyone tell you different. Grief is the shadow side of love; not to grieve implies that you haven’t loved, and, if you have, then not to grieve is to live a lie. But truth will out sooner or later, and sooner is better. She came; and she grieved; and she was comforted.
And so the comfort which Jesus promises as part of the blessing of the Kingdom, the comfort which will be fully ours in the new world which God will make, comes forward from that world to meet us in the present. Thank God, there is both a future hope and an anticipation of that future hope in the present. And this means that we are called to be people of comfort, as well as people of grief, in the present: people through whom comfort comes to others. The Beatitudes are not only promises; they are agendas. We learn their meaning for ourselves so that we may make them real for others. But that is a whole other sermon. For now: Blessed are those who mourn; for they shall be comforted. And the response is not ‘yeah, yeah.’ It is: ‘Amen; Amen.’

Rt. Rev’d Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham
21st January 2007

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