Observing The Festival of All Saints

November 7, 2021


They shall be comforted

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4 ESV).

It was incongruous to me that one of the psychological theories used today called Terror Management Theory postulated that what drives antivaxxers or deniers of C-19 is actually a fear of death. The world is in a pandemic causing death around the world – even though death has always been around the world – and many people are saying that our cognitive capacity to assess risk and function sensibly is affected, people are responding overly cautiously or very uncautiously – and the theory goes that both actions, along with an increase in a group solidarity – choose your group – leads to increase in prejudice, anxiety, violence in the community often linked to the prejudice, and a rise in mental health troubles. Some of the responses to this in the pyscho-social-therapy world can involve talk therapy, CBT, exposure therapy, accurate information, imagination, art, and creativity all designed to confront ‘death anxiety’.

Part of me wondered if what is being assessed and described is a human phenomenon – we’ve always been like this – or something ‘modern’ that has become pronounced when we stopped dying at home? I am sure there is more ink to come! Part of me reading these articles also muttered, ‘Why doesn’t everyone go to church?’.

That might seem callous or even suggest a ‘quick fix’ but in this case I am talking about something that even you who are listening / reading might shudder and prefer me not to be too loud about – and that is that the Church, in my way of thinking, is about Jesus and his cross and that means that this place reeks of death. I’m not talking about an abattoir or the scene of a horror film or even a mortuary but about a space where we encounter truth – truth about death – when death is probably still the biggest taboo subject around – hard to talk about, hard to listen to, hard to deal with – but this truth is not morbid, anxious, fearful, violent but strangely something opposite – comforting. It is a paradox that in Christian worship with its regular message of death, its encounter with dying that Christians are not gibbering wrecks but leave this space alive and comforted – because the truth has set them free. They leave comforted because Jesus once said on a mountain side to his disciples with the crowds listening in, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4 ESV).

Jesus wasn’t saying all mourning is a blessing nor that those who mourn – and grief is our reaction to loss which is not just death but any loss – maybe our health, a relationship, occupation, country, possessions, reputation – are automatically comforted but he was talking about what living in his Kingdom is about, what happens to those who follow him and the starting point is that his people are ‘blessed’. Now if I was to say what does that mean for people then most people think of health, good fortune, success and we want it all the time – hence we are blessed. What Jesus said is that his followers are blessed in their mourning – as they mourn – in other words there is a reason to mourn happening.

What does mourning and grief feel like? It is not happy happy joy joy but usually tears and sadness and all sorts of tough moments and this isn’t just for a day or so, this can last for a long time – even the rest of our lives. That’s the incongruity that our default is not to associate sadness or tears with being blessed! This verse is part of the section called The Beatitudes – we heard / read them earlier – and it reflects real living – our lives, our up and down lives, our happy and sad lives, our successful and failing lives, and Jesus says that in all times his people can be blessed. And in the case of mourning when people often think or say, at some point, ‘Why God?’ or other questions, they want answers – and the Greek word here for ‘comfort’ has associations with asking for help or an exhortation about things – answers about what is helpful – and those answers can be regarded as comforting, consoling, helping because they respond to the cry or the wailing or the tears or the loneliness or the sorrow. Jesus’ followers – those in his Kingdom – even though they are also living here on Earth according to calendars and countries will be comforted (and the Greek structure implies – it isn’t stated out loud – that it is God who will comfort them).

This comfort can be direct – someone speaks to you – or indirect as you are reminded and supported by the messages in this space – heard every time you’re here – maybe for all of your life. I’ve explained this before on many occasions – that at the font, in Baptism, those baptised are joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection, and given life with Jesus. Is Jesus alive now? So are all those linked to him – “even though they die yet shall they live” said Jesus (John 11:25,26). In Holy Communion – a testament in his blood – means that Jesus died but we are not meeting a corpse but the living Jesus – Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!] – as we proclaim his death until he comes. And God’s Word – Law and Gospel – kills and makes alive – as we struggle with our sins and seek to live repentant lives. My point is that in the Divine Service Jesus brings death close to us and shows us who is boss. Death, where is your victory? Where is your sting? (1 Corinthians 15:55) Every Sunday!

Jesus gives us a context of death – our sins and his cross, a meaning for life, and his presence in the dying – and that is comforting for both the person dying and those they leave behind who are still in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4). What is cast out by this comforting God, by this risen Jesus, is fear – probably the greatest opponent up against faith. And fear is part and parcel of the shroud around death and seems so strong until it is not in control – and that loss of power and control only comes about through love – with the presence and care of someone who loves us – and fear no longer has control.

Christianity is not a death cult because its goal is life – with freedom and joy – in this real world with all the sins and evils and oppression and fighting we bring about and because it’s goal is life and its heart – well, God’s heart – is love then it isn’t afraid to talk about death, to be in death’s presence, to comfort the dying, to comfort the grieving because Jesus’ resurrection is the public announcement that death’s power was broken on the cross. Yes, I know that is a faith statement – unprovable by our senses or experiences – and in fact palatably laughable to the world – but that is what the followers of Jesus have discovered that life is different and dying can no longer terrorise.

And grief? We’re still in this world so, of course, Christians grieve – that isn’t sinning. Grief, however, can exacerbate sinful behaviour, self centred behaviour – the world might call it maladjusted grief. The apostle Paul told the Thessalonians that our grief is one not of despair but of hope – faith looking into the future – confident and dependable (1 Thessalonians 4:13) – not because of us but because of Jesus. And so we are comforted and can comfort others because God is a God of comfort! (2 Corinthians 1:3,4) Grief is not in control.

The Festival of All Saints has a very long Church history – a response to the world’s persecution of Christians and their martyrdom – which means witness – and over the centuries, the Church remembers that God is a God of the living and that includes those who have died before us because whether we live or whether we die we are with the Lord (Romans 14:8). We can remember them at any time, grieve, be sad or reflective and above all be comforted because those in Christ are always in Christ – they are with Jesus always. That promise and truth began at our Baptism and not even death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39). 

And that is why Christians need not be anxious about pandemics, plagues, or anything destructive because even those situations are moments in which to live – with Jesus present with us – and have the goal – the same it has always been – of serving those around us.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4 ESV).

Bible References

  • Matthew 5:4 - 4