A week ago, I was supposed to fill in for Pastor Amy and lead the discussion in our Wednesday Night Words Bible Study while she was out of town, but 2011’s wacky weird weather had other ideas — that turned out to be the day of the-wettest-ever-snowfall and the commute-beyond-all-description for so many people (remember the pictures of 100’s of abandoned cars on the GW Parkway?). It turned out to be a very good thing that we cancelled our get-together. So I did the next best thing and distributed my outline to the group…and promised to write a little bit about Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Well, I’m a little late (apologies to the group), but I’ll post a few thoughts anyway.
The act of mourning and the emotion of grief are perhaps some of the most universal of the human condition. And the desire for comfort, however one might define comfort, is equally universal. So, in many ways this Beatitude is one of the most accessible. Maybe yes, maybe no.
We would have begun our discussion last week by reading Psalm 77 — yes, a psalm, not more from the Sermon on the Mount. As a musician, I spend a fair amount of time with the psalm texts — I read them, I sing them, and yes, I think about them. And recently, I’ve been reading about them…after singing Psalm 27 a couple of weeks ago (The Soundtrack of…), I began reading a book titled Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary (Wm B. Erdmans Publishing) and I’ve learned a lot of things so far…especially about the literary form known as a lament.
A lament is, in one of its many forms, a poetic expression of mourning and grief (it can be many things, including just sobbing and wailing, but sometimes it is poetry too). And that is what we have in Psalm 77, which begins with a deep cry of despair:
1 I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
2 When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.
But a lament, particularly a Biblical lament, generally embraces both light and dark, both despair and hope, both the mourning and the comfort. In fact, if we look at a lament like the one in Psalm 77, we see that generally, particularly in prayer or poetic form, the lament has three separate parts or actions: first, the reaction to the situation at hand; second, remembering all the reasons why the lament and the grief and the pain are not the truth of our existence; and finally, in the end, the restoration of hope through faith (or, one might say, the receiving of comfort).
There are many types of grief, and many things that we mourn in our lives: people, jobs, places, decisions, failures, losses of all kinds….the list goes on and on. And, if you need at this time to think more about laments, and grief, I invite you to take a minute and read Pastor Amy’s sermon from the Conversations with Jesus Series on Luke 23:26-31. Clearly, mourning and grief are things we all understand.
But what about the other part of our Beatitude? Comfort. It is not as easy to define “comfort” as it is to define mourning or grief or the act of lamenting. But like mourning, comfort is something that we feel in our body and in our soul. I’ll bet that even when you say the word, you may experience some physical sensation or memory: a feeling of warmth, a slight relaxation in muscle tension, a memory of a touch or a smile. That is your humanity speaking to you and reminding you that comfort is your inheritance as a child of God.
Please allow me one geeky aside while I point out something about the original Greek text in this Beatitude. The word for mourning (in the original Greek text) is pentheo and it is not a confusing word to translate: it really seems to mean only “to mourn” or “mourning” and it appears 10 times in the New Testament text. But the word for comfort is parakaleo and its translations are not so simple: it can mean to teach, to encourage, to speak to, to beg, and a whole long list of nuanced meanings, in addition “to console”. And in its many flavors, it occurs 111 times in 105 verses in the New Testament (I thank the Blue Letter Bible for these statisics). But the reasons I am stopping to point all of this out is a not-so-geeky one: first, that in my experience, the shape and form of comfort is as varied as the human race; and second, the one thing that all forms of comfort share is that they involve the act of recognition by the comforter to the one seeking comfort.
If you comfort someone by just letting them talk, you recognize their pain by listening. If you comfort someone by trying to help them solve a problem, you acknowledge them and their dilemma through teaching. If you are comforted by faith, you remember that in faith and in grace you are recognized and loved by God.
So what seems at first a simple and understandable statement in the Beatitudes, is in fact as rich and varied and complex as is the human experience and as is the jouney of faith we have all joined together to take and to witness. But it is, I think, first and foremost a reminder to us all to extend the recognition of comfort to all that we meet — because God has extended it to us over and over again, every moment that we breath.
And so, as I began, I will end with a Psalm. One of the other things I’ve learned about the Psalms in my reading is that part of their magnificence (and part of what frightens people away from seeking a full understanding of them) is that they encompass the full extremes of our humanity. So, just as Psalm 77 led us through the steps of lamenting, let us read Psalm 30 to remind us of the meaning of comfort:
2 LORD my God, I called to you for help,
and you healed me.
11 You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
12 that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
LORD my God, I will praise you forever.