“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4
We were gathered at the plaza, right between the giant bull statue and the unattractive fences of a construction site. Luminary bags weighted with rice and lit candles marked the sacred space surrounding 30 of us, one to represent each person who died as a result of domestic violence the previous year in our state. The vigil began as planned, simple, but meaningful, to remember victims of this tragedy and raise awareness about the suffering that takes place behind closed doors. About halfway through the simple service, a woman stumbled into the vigil, interrupting the solemn mood without realizing that a group was gathered and someone was speaking. She stood silent for a few moments, listening to the speaker. When she realized that the speaker was talking about domestic violence, she began to interrupt, asking questions to the speaker, sharing details from her own experience with abuse. “What would you do…what would you do if…?” she cried. Then, as unexpectedly as she joined us and as abruptly as her interruption, she began to weep, uncontrollably crying for the rest of the vigil. A couple of women gathered around her and held her as she wept. Before long, it was my turn to pray. I barely got the words out…I could hardly project my shaking voice over her loud sobs.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” Jesus proclaims in the second line of the beatitudes. Blessed are those who mourn. How is this weeping woman, this victim of abuse, blessed? She mourns the injustices she’s experienced, her suffering, the ways her life has been shaped by pain and her inability to free herself from her oppression. Jesus says that this woman and all her sisters and brothers that mourn with her are blessed.
The Jewish culture that Jesus was born into has a rich history of mourning or practicing lament, stretching back hundreds of years before he was born. The prophets and the Psalms include poems, songs, and speeches, recounting the words of people gathered together for public mourning. This mourning wasn’t a kind of crying about having a bad day or because of a frustration at home or work. The mourning Jesus is referencing is the kind of mourning that is a response to injustice and oppression, those who mourn the impact of the powers, both material and spiritual, on the lives of the most vulnerable.
Blessed are those who mourn. Another beatitude and another paradox. Once again, Jesus’ words are outlandish and nonsensical. How is it that those who mourn are blessed? Aren’t those who are happy and fulfilled, aren’t they the ones that are blessed? Yet, in this beatitude, in this paradox, Jesus once again exposes the powers and envisions an alternative. Jesus exposes the powers that cause people to mourn in the first place, those who experience unjust suffering and loss, the same injustices that cause people to be poor in spirit. It’s these people, the mourners, that are blessed, Jesus says. These are the people that Jesus came for. In God’s empire, mourners are not written off or ignored as uncivilized, uneducated, or badly behaved. Instead, in God’s empire, they are the ones who receive God’s comfort and consolation; God’s hears their cries.
Our culture tends to restrict mourning or public displays of emotion to something appropriate for home life or private time. Further, spending time in mourning may be quickly relegated to a waste of time or an inactive posture. The expression, “Don’t just cry about it, do something,” illustrates this clearly. But mourning is not a useless waste of time or an inactive practice. Mourn is a verb. In fact, mourning elicits action and engagement. Mourning exposes the powers, shows their true colors. Seeing people in mourning is disorienting. It interrupts the lives we lead that are detached from suffering and injustice, forcing us to take another look, to pause, to listen, and to join.
The woman who interrupted our solemn vigil for victims of domestic violence exposed the powers with her loud wailing. She made me feel uncomfortable, like I wanted to look away and get away from her as quickly as possible. And yet, her cries made it impossible for me to forget her. The sound of her weeping echoed in my ears for weeks following and if I try, I can still hear them now, over nine months later. Her mourning moves me to engage in seeking justice for others who have suffered like she has.
Clarence Jordan reflects on mourning in his book on the beatitudes. Jordan, a white farmer who resisted the powers by living on a commune with blacks and whites in the 1940’s in rural Georgia, witnessed plenty of injustices in his lifetime. He makes a distinction between fake mourners and real mourners, encouraging us to be real mourners. He writes about what he calls fake mourners, saying, “There are people who look at the world and say, ‘Sure, the worlds a mess, and I guess I’m a bit guilty like everybody else, but what can I do about it?’ What they’re really saying is that they are not concerned enough about themselves or the world to look for anything to do.”1
Real mourners, according to Jordan, aren’t just people who sit around and cry or feel overwhelmed by the world around them. Rather, they are moved to action, flooded with creativity, empowered in the company of others, and determined to join the work Jesus began in bringing God’s empire to fulfillment on earth as it is in heaven.2
How is Jesus inviting us to mourn the injustices in God’s world? How might God transform us through mourning or being “real mourners?”
1. James Howell, The Beatitudes for Today. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005., 45.
2. James Howell, The Beatitudes for Today, 46.