January 8 was a day filled with vivid images for me: the winter sun shining on fresh fallen snow in my quaint little town; my eldest daughter stunningly beautiful in her wedding dress; the look on her fiancé's face as my wife and I walked her down the aisle; the happy reunion with friends at the reception; the laughter and dancing—well, I gush. It was one of the happiest days of my life.
I didn't read the news that day, but the next morning I found out about the other event of January 8, the shooting that left bloody bodies littered on the pavement in Tucson—and a fiancé, parents of a nine-year-old girl, and an assortment of spouses and other loved ones in a state of shock and grief.
How could a day that was so bright for some of us be so dark for others? It's a contrast that makes itself known every day of the year, every year of the decade, in every decade and every century. This reality is no respecter or persons, nor events. It will invade the homes of the wealthy and the poor, and put a damper on a father's formerly unalloyed joy. It's enough to make one mourn.
Jesus said that those who mourn are blessed. It's a nice sentiment, but not many of us believe it. We live in a land of possibility thinking, of people seeking their best life now. That doesn't include mourning. We face tragedy by telling one another to put it behind us, to make a fresh start. To mourn is to meditate on the past, and we don't admire people who dwell on the past. No, this is the first day of the rest of our lives! Let's take the tiger by the tail! The future beckons us!
We traffic in the inspirational because we really do want to be blessed, and this seems the shortest route there. But it's interesting that in the Beatitudes—Jesus' meditation on blessedness in Matthew 5—there is nothing positive or motivational to be found. He refers either to human misery (poverty of spirit, sadness, getting harassed or even killed), scorned character traits (meekness), or activities beyond the daily reach of mortals (righteousness, mercy, and peacemaking). And right there at the beginning of his meditation on blessedness stands the odd little saying: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
It's both odd and prosaic. In the normal course of human affairs, people who mourn are indeed comforted by their loved ones. We don't need a revelation of God-with-us to tell us that. We could have figured that out on our own. But since this is spoken by Jesus, we may assume that in the prosaic lies something beyond human understanding.
For one thing, Jesus is obliquely pointing to the comfort that will be ours at the end of history, when God "will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4). This is the trajectory of every beatitude. The Beatitudes are end-times prophecy at its best.
When Jesus talks, he often talks as he does here: about the prosaic, about the end of all things, and at the same time, about himself. He is, after all, the divine made prosaic, the prosaic that is the destiny of history, and the prosaic that not only points to something blessed, but is the very means of blessedness. In this case, the means of blessedness is mourning.
What we see in Jesus is the revelation of God's way of salvation. There is no resurrection without death. There is no joy without despair. There is no comfort without mourning. Those who mourn will be comforted precisely because they mourn. Their mourning is blessed not because they are being vulnerable or compassionate or empathetic or practicing some other virtue. Their mourning is blessed because it participates in the mourning of Jesus—the one who wept for Lazarus, grieved at the sin of Jerusalem, despaired of God's presence on the Cross, and now sits at the right hand of God, mourning for a world drowning in sin and sorrow. When we mourn, we are living in Christ, allowing Jesus' life to live through us. We are, to use Peter's language, partaking in the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4) of the One who carries our griefs and sorrows (Is. 53:4).
No, we are not co-redeemers! All the redemption is done by Jesus. We're just along for the ride, grasping his waist as he gallops through history, surveying the blighted landscape of human suffering, shining a light for a people who dwell in a land of deep darkness.
There is indeed a time to rejoice, a time to put away sorrows and to bask in the glow of the moment. These moments point to the day when life itself will seem like one extended wedding banquet, lit with the glory of God. But our usual work before that day is to find blessedness by participating in another kind of divine work. Yes, that work includes comforting the afflicted and reminding all of the tearless days ahead. But it also includes the comfort of knowing that as we mourn the sorrows of a suffering planet, we are one with Jesus, who perfectly carries the world's griefs and sorrows.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of many books, including the forthcoming Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit (Baker).
Previous SoulWork columns include:
Blessed Are the Poor in Virtue | Why some people may want to abandon New Year's resolutions as soon as possible. (January 6, 2011)
Me? Favored? By God? | The remarkable announcement to Mary—and us. (December 22, 2010)
The Great Incompatibility | Jesus is interested in the oddest things. (December 16, 2010)