Rend Your Hearts: Lent and the Space of Mourning
Ed Watson preached this sermon for Ash Wednesday. We bid you pray for his student and her family, and for all of us mourning this Lententide.
'Rend your hearts, and not your garments.'
This is the third time I've been in Church today. The first was for morning prayer; the second was for a funeral. It was the funeral of the mother of a young women I taught in fifth grade. The Pentecostal church where it was held was today a place of profound grief and mourning, especially for my student, who is having to cope with a sense of inexpressible loss that no twelve year old should have to experience.
This grief is made even more profound by the importance this student placed on family. When I heard about her loss, I was reminded of a series of poems she had written for my English class, poems about family and about love. As it happens, I still have all the work my fifth graders did for me, and I was able to dig these poems up. At the centre of one them is a line of such powerful simplicity, that it could only have been written by a ten year old: love is when you are not alone.
We are today entering into Lent, those 40 days of the Church year set aside, in part, as a period of mourning. It can be difficult to mourn in the Christian tradition: the message of Christianity is so centred around the redemption of the world and the victory of Jesus Christ, that it can be easy to forget the proper place of grief. Because we know that everything will be alright in the end, we can feel foolish for expressing the pain we feel because things aren't alright now.
This is why Lent is important. It is why Ash Wednesday is important. It reminds us that mourning has a place, even, perhaps especially, in a religion centred around unquestionable hope. And it seems to me that the reason for this mourning can be perfectly and precisely stated in the simple words of my student who is today grieving the loss of her mother: we mourn because love is when we are not alone.
The fact that we are not alone makes us vulnerable. It makes us responsible. It means that when we see another's pain, we cannot help but share it. It means that when we grieve, we grieve in the company of God. It means that we fear our mortality and our frailty, because they mean that we can fail others, that we can hurt others. It means that we can be hurt by others, even as they seek to love us. This pain, this grief, this fear, and this frailty, these are things that have a real impact on our lives, precisely because we love, because we are loved, because we are not alone.
This is why we mourn. We do not mourn so that we might proudly show our compassion to others, whether by tearing our clothes or gesturing wildly; we mourn because that compassion is a part of what constitutes our being in the presence of God. We do not rend our hearts in order to show ourselves worthy of anything; we mourn because our hearts just are rent by the suffering of those we cannot isolate ourselves from. We do not mourn our own sins out of introspective guilt, as if this were an end in itself, but because we know we are called to better love of God and neighbour. We do not mourn our own suffering out of narcissism, but because God loves us, because our suffering is not just our own concern. In short, we do not mourn because we are alone and unloved: we mourn because we are not alone, because we are loved.
I pray for my student today, and for her family. I also pray, however, that her words might reverberate in my soul this Lent, as I seek to make space for grief before the Cross. I pray that she will always remind me that love is when we are not alone, that it is precisely because we are not alone that we are exposed to that which gives us reason to mourn. And in this, I hope she continues to point me towards the fact that this mourning is not counter to Christian hope, but rather premised upon the very thing in virtue of which we can hope at all: the love of Jesus Christ on the Cross, which tells us that we are not alone, that we are not abandoned, and that even in our most private and hidden grief, God is right there in our hearts. For He is our treasure in heaven; and when our hearts are with Him, even as we are down here on earth, mourning can have a proper place in our lives, precisely because we will always be vulnerable to love.