“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)
A wonderful, reassuring promise: those who mourn will be comforted. But what kind of mourning is Jesus talking about? Certainly the mourning that we all experience when we lose someone. But that’s not a uniquely Christian thing. All people mourn! Remember what Jesus said about love: If you love those who love you, what’s the difference? Even bad people love those who love them! (cf. Matthew 5:46) So also with grief. All people mourn their dead, regardless of whether they’re Christian, or Muslim, or Buddhists, or atheists!
Yes, blessed are they who mourn for their dead. They shall be comforted. But I believe Jesus means more here. Blessed are those who mourn. But the Greek μακάριοι οἱ πενθοῦντες, ὅτι αὐτοὶ παρακληθήσονται can be translated as”Happy are those who mourn” and even “Lucky are those who mourn.” Blessed sounds religious enough. But happy? Lucky?
Paul wrote some important thoughts in 2 Corinthians 7:
But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and… by the comfort with which he was comforted in you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it), for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret… For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what zeal…Therefore we are comforted. And besides our own comfort we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus, because his mind has been set at rest by you all.
Paul is talking about grieving for sins. But note that he’s talking about this in a communal context. The grief that Paul caused them through a sharp letter he had written to them, motivated the Corinthian Christians to clear away the sins that existed in their midst. And this brought joy instead – joy to Titus, Paul’s messenger, and thus to Paul and to the Corinthians themselves as they were relieved of the burden that sin had created in their midst.
Sorrow over sin is classic teaching throughout the Orthodox tradition. I wrote a 35-page essay on this subject at Seminary. But not only sorrow over one’s own sins. That’s part of it, perhaps the first step. But you don’t stop there. You move on to weep over the sins of others – just as Paul caused the Corinthians to do. You weep for the sins of the world, for the suffering, the victims of war and terrorism and economic and social injustice. You weep today for the destruction of the environment and the horrendous loss of respect for life – all life, not just human.
There is little you can do for the sins of the world; they are too big. But you can weep for them. Not just pray – prayers are too easy; rolling off names of people in your prayer list can be mechanical. No, there is deeper prayer needed. Weep! Penthos is the word that the ancient writers and saints of the church used to describe this holy grief. And Saint Antony the Great, whose feast we celebrate today, January 17th, is one of those spiritual fathers of our faith. This penthos is holy. And it is blessed. And happy indeed those who mourn with this holy penthos; and they shall be comforted.
But there’s even more to penthos. In the face of so much evil and sin in the world, it is easy to hate. Penthos teaches us not to hate, not to demonize. It might even teach us to understand why some people do evil things.
This broader understanding of grief fits into the message of all the Beatitudes. Poor in spirit, meek, merciful, peacemakers, hunger and thirst for justice and persecuted for justice! Even the pure in heart is about more than personal holiness. Throughout the Beatitudes, Jesus asks us to focus beyond ourselves and to see our place in God’s plan for the world.
And look at one more thing. What are the promises: Inherit the earth, receive the kingdom of heaven, the earth, become sons and daughters of God, you shall see God! Powerful images. And all these promises of comfort and the kingdom and mercy and vision…. all are meant to elevate us to desire God and desire the kingdom of God. And it is here that Gregory of Nyssa puts the emphasis in his own commentary on this Beatitude. He calls it blessed when we mourn our absence from God’s presence; when we mourn that we’re not in paradise, not in the kingdom of heaven. This mourning creates holy desire within us – and this is very blessed and very happy indeed.
I remember the words that we read in the Liturgy on the Sunday before Lent begins: Banished from the joys of Paradise, Adam and Eve sat outside and wept, crying out, “I am fallen; in your compassion have mercy on me.”
We weep for the losses in our lives; the loss of our loved ones. We weep over our sins. We weep over the sins of the world. We weep with longing for God’s kingdom. This is a blessed sorrow, a happy penthos! Rejoice, for you will be comforted by the God of all comfort.