Blessed are those who mourn

One morning about a week ago I opened up my Bible to the very first part of Isaiah 61. This is the passage that Jesus read in the synagogue as His public ministry was getting underway. He ran into trouble when He declared in all confidence that this passage has been fulfilled in Himself.

The part that really spoke to me was the second part, following the part quoted in the Gospel. The whole passage reads as follows, with the part that spoke to me in bold:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion–to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.

I know well that God comforts us in our grief. He doesn't make it go away or give instant answers for why the thing that caused our grief happened. But He does comfort. When someone we know is grieving a great loss, we also want to comfort, and it is a beautiful and God-given desire. When we ourselves are grieving, we too long to experience His comfort through the people in our lives.

But this passage says that comfort is only the beginning. What happens next is truly amazing. There is actually this entire process of transformation and empowerment that is so beautifully outlined in this passage.

A garland instead of ashes, oil of gladness instead of mourning

Ashes have long been a sign of mourning. The Bible mentions people covering themselves in ashes when they were grieving, especially when what they were grieving was their sins. In the book of Jonah, the king of Ninevah stepped off his throne and sat in ashes upon hearing the word of God that his city would be destroyed. Every year on the first day of Lent, Catholics and Christians from several mainline Protestant churches receive ashes on their foreheads as a sign of repentance from sin. It is right and fitting to mourn our sins and the damage to our relationship with God and others they have caused. To do so shows a deep longing for holiness–a hunger for righteousness–which God promises in the Beatitudes to satisfy.

But there comes a point where God wants to give us a garland instead of ashes. There comes a point when it's time to celebrate. And God gives us the garland and the oil of gladness, along with the joy needed to truly engage in celebration. In the case of sin, He forgives and removes our sin from us, cleanses us so thoroughly of it that there remains nothing to grieve. In the case of a loss, as in a death, God gives us a reason to celebrate anyway.

A mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit

Worship is a form of celebration. In fact, it's the kind of celebration for which we were created. Everything in us is oriented to worship God. When for whatever reason we find ourselves unable to worship Him, we are in an unsustainable situation as our worship of God is necessary for our well being. Would the inability to worship God result in a faint spirit? Or is the faint spirit the reason for that inability?

Either way, God promises to give us a mantle of praise–the ability to worship Him. Sometimes people who are grieving find it difficult to eat. In a similar way, people who are grieving may find it difficult to worship God. And yet we know that both eating and worshiping God are vital to our health. God promises to provide that mantle of praise so that we can worship Him no matter what suffering we are enduring. In this way, our grief does not have to lead to us having a faint spirit.

Oaks of righteousness

This is where it starts to get really good. We've been comforted; we've been given joy and the means to celebrate, we've been given the ability to worship. Next we get to be called oaks of righteousness. There is something about this process that makes us genuinely holy. There is something in the comfort, the garland, the oil of gladness and the mantle of praise that we receive which also fills us with God's own righteousness, to the point where we ourselves become righteous–a veritable tree coursing with righteousness. What an incredible promise to those in mourning of what we have to look forward to.

Displaying His glory

It turns out righteousness is only the beginning. We also get to display God's glory, which has to mean we ourselves get to be glorious. God is indescribable beauty, glory, power, awesomeness, grandeur and many other superlatively wonderful qualities, and our destiny is to display them.

St. Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians is overflowing with expressions of his great love for this particular group of people. He writes of a deep longing to see them, of not being able to bear a long time with no news of them (so he sent Timothy to visit them and bring him news), and how as much as wanting to share the Good News of Jesus with them, he wants to share his very self with them. Anyway, St. Paul's love for the Thessalonians runs deep. He closes Chapter Two with these words: “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!”

I believe that as God is at work in me, he feels the same way towards me that St. Paul expressed towards the Thessalonians, only His love goes much deeper and is much stronger. He looks my way, beaming, and says: “Yes, you are my glory and joy!” I say this in the present in this outside of time sense. When all is fulfilled, this is how it is. In this temporal moment, it's a work in progress which God sees, as well as its fulfillment which is in the temporal future. But to God it's all NOW, and so I can confidently say I am His glory and joy. I think that is what being the planting of the Lord to display His glory means.

On a practical level it means that God is orchestrating this wonderful interior process inside me which transforms me from one who displays brokenness (my inheritance from the first sin), to one who displays His glory. The part I never really connected with before is how mourning is an integral part of this process–in this passage, it's presented as the starting point.

Rebuilding the ancient ruins

It gets even better. Once we are comforted in our grief, provided with a means to celebrate, given joy and the ability to praise, and made oaks of righteousness able to display God's glory, then we go to work. And what is that work? Our work is to build up the ancient ruins, raise up the former devastations (which go back many generations), and repair the ruined cities.

What exactly are the ancient ruins? What do the former devastations look like? Where are the ruined cities? I believe this is a broad, broad area, and that the answers look different to each one of us. I have my own ideas of what these things are, the specific ancient ruins I'm supposed to build up, the specific former devastations I'm called to raise up, and the particular ruined cities I'm called to repair.

We live in a fallen, broken world. Years and years of rebellion against God have taken their toll. You don't have to go far or look very long to find brokenness, ruin and devastation. It's all around us. It's touched our lives. It's likely the reason we are grieving in the first place.

For the most part, the causative event of our grief, a profound loss, lies beyond our control. If it's the death of a loved one, we don't expect to be able to bring the loved one back to physical life. Part of processing our grief is coming to terms with the new normal in our life following the devastating event.

But God has far more in mind. He promises not only to repair and restore devastation, but He promises us that we will be the ones doing the repairing and restoration as we yield to His work in our lives. That is a profound and empowering promise–an incredible honor to be given. I am truly excited to experience how that will play out in my own life, and what it will be like to restore the devastations He has called me to restore.

And to think it all starts with grieving. Those who are now grieving have a lot to look forward to.

Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.

Catholicism | Devtome Writers

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