“Blessed are those who mourn, they shall find consolation.” (Matthew 5.4, compare Luke 6 21b)
Now hold on a minute. People who mourn are many things, but ‘blessed’ surely isn’t one of them? Any sensible person knows that the loss of a loved one is perhaps the most terrifying moment in life, short of our own death.
I think of my own father’s funeral seven years ago. His deepest wish was to have the hymn ‘Thine Be the Glory’ (set to Handel’s famous tune) played at the end of the service. Naturally we did this.
It was one of the most difficult moments of my life. Not because I lacked belief that the love of God is enough to sustain both him and me through both life and death, but because at a time of loss, celebration sometimes feels like salt on a wound. Healing but really painful.
I was also deeply conscious of how odd and difficult this moment must have been for some present who lacked the underlying faith that this hymn of triumph sounds. So I spent most of the time praying rather than singing.
Of course God is merciful, and not all would have felt as I did, confused and wounded. Sometimes, in the face of grief, we are simply numb. At other times strangely elevated in spite of it all. We never quite know how we will react.
This is part of Jesus’ point. The consolation of which he speaks is not something that depends upon us and our feelings, it is guaranteed simply by who God is and what God offers. ‘All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’, as Julian of Norwich movingly puts it.
You certainly can’t get to think like that in your own strength. In many ways it flies in the face of the facts. It is a gift of faith, which is necessary because it stops God becoming yet another possession and stops us looking for another kind of ‘security’ that falls short of God.
So Jesus isn’t telling us we should be happy in the face of loss. He’s not talking about feelings at all (something we find almost impossible to grasp in an emotive culture). Rather he’s telling us that those who mourn will find consolation because God is a God who binds up wounds. Full stop.
How? We are not told and we cannot yet understand, because, well, we are not God. The blessed are those who realise this and don’t think of it as an insult to their intelligence, or as an evasion on the part of God.
In the last century the Anglican (and, later, Catholic) divine John Henry Newman wrote a book called ‘Against Enthusiasm.’ It was a diatribe directed at feel-good religion, and, if you will forgive a playful observation, I do not imagine that it is staple fare among many charismatic churches today!
Of course Newman wasn’t advocating un-enthusiasm either (the Anglicans and Catholics got him wrong on that!). Instead he was commending a right sense that the faithfulness of God does not depend upon how we feel at any given time. Which is pretty good news when you think about it.
One last observation. For many critics (and many practitioners) of Christianity, divine consolation sounds a purely ‘other worldly’ business. But for Jesus the ‘time of fulfilment’ (Luke 4) is always ‘now’ as well as ‘not yet’.
So it makes sense that his reference to ‘the mournful’ would have had a very particular meaning for Jesus’ hearers. It recalled a group of women who wept and wailed near the site of the destroyed Temple, longing both for its rebuilding and for the reconstitution of a shattered nation.
Jesus is saying, quite specifically, that these women will be honoured and that the broken nation and its religious identity will be restored. But not, as it turns out, in the way that they — along with the Zealots, and many present day Zionists — think of restoration: as an act of territorial reassertion.
Instead a new people, a people not bounded by ethnic and religious labels, will be borne out of Jesus’ own Crucified and risen body, offering hope and security to all who embrace the different way of living he creates.
God’s consolation is not a dream. It is a people and a destiny which turns out, in the biblical narrative, to be universal in character and cosmic in scope. But that’s another story…
God of consolation:
Bind our wounds and our fears into your love.
Restore us to faith in the new peoplehood of Christ.
Strengthen us to offer hope to all who are afflicted and oppressed.
And keep us focussed on the living hope which is found in you.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.