Grief's Patient Friend
“Like the rest of the world, I thought, ‘I can sit around listening to my own fears and anxieties and uncertainties or I can do something creative.' That’s when I came up with doing this for the sufferers of COVID-19.” - Joseph Malham, creator of the icon Christ the Healer
Despite our seemingly increasing differences, all peoples of this current Earth are now bound by grief. We have all suffered significant loss, some more profoundly or personally than others, yet no one has been exempted from it. Whether it is our health, the loss of loved ones, separation from others, economic insecurity, suspension of plans, or loss of personal freedom, what is truly unique to this current calamity is that everyone feels it in some way. Those of us who have been blessed with health, wealth and privilege may be the least equipped to expand our experience of God in these times. Gone is the effectiveness of platitudes and phrases that may have served us in the past. Gone also may be our belief as to what Providence looks like in our lives. Those who are well acquainted with poverty, sickness, oppression or disenfranchisement already know this: the Lord does not promise the alleviation of suffering, at least not in this life, but rather our, and therefore His, embodiment of it.
One if my grateful memories of the privilege of traveling to Europe a few years ago was our visit to the Musee Unterlinden in Colmar, France. It is the home to the powerful Isenheim Altarpiece.
Between 1512 and 1516, the artists Niclaus of Haguenau (for the sculpted portion) and Mathis Grünewald (for the painted panels) created this celebrated altarpiece for the Antonite order’s monastic complex at Isenheim, a village about 15 miles south of Colmar. The monks of the Antonite order ministered to victims of Saint Anthony’s fire, a horrible illness that was common in the Middle Ages. What was so unique to this Altarpiece was that the skin of the Crucified Christ bore the very infirmity that the sufferers' experienced. Thus, in a very specific and transformative way, the depicted Jesus suffered as they did. (https://www.musee-unterlinden.com/en/oeuvres/the-isenheim-altarpiece/)
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
We are tempted to allow our grief to become fear, and our fear to give way to anger and bitterness. Grief can feel like fear, because it leaves us feeling vulnerable. In reality, we are always vulnerable, but we can mask it with our many comforts and distractions. Today's challenge is to embrace our grief, fear and vulnerability, which can only be done if we expand our understanding of what our God and Church look like. The prophet Isaiah gives us Christ's most poignant description in chapter 53, verses 1-6:
Indeed, who would ever believe it?
Who would possibly accept what we’ve been told?
Who has witnessed the awesome power and plan of the Eternal in action?
Out of emptiness he came, like a tender shoot from rock-hard ground.
He didn’t look like anything or anyone of consequence—
he had no physical beauty to attract our attention.
So he was despised and forsaken by men,
this man of suffering, grief’s patient friend.
As if he was a person to avoid, we looked the other way;
he was despised, forsaken, and we took no notice of him.
Yet it was our suffering he carried,
our pain and distress, our sick-to-the-soul-ness.
We just figured that God had rejected him,
that God was the reason he hurt so badly.
But he was hurt because of us; he suffered so.
Our wrongdoing wounded and crushed him.
He endured the breaking that made us whole.
The injuries he suffered became our healing.
We all have wandered off, like shepherdless sheep,
scattered by our aimless striving and endless pursuits;
The Eternal One laid on him, this silent sufferer,
the sins of us all.
Let us discover together our Suffering Servant, and learn how we can bear our grief together. Let us counter fear with faith, anger with understanding, and grief with vulnerability and love. Amen.
“The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment