During my nearly fifteen years of ordained ministry, I’ve been honored to walk with dozens of families through the process of grieving the death of a loved one. I’ve watched spouses, children, parents, grandchildren, and even grandparents ping pong their way through the stages of grief. Some remain stuck somewhere along the journey. Others, thankfully, have found acceptance and peace on the other side. Everybody grieves differently, but there are a few hallmarks of grief. As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first posited back in the late 1960s, we all experience, at some point and to varying degrees, denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. Less commonly discussed, but true to my anecdotal experience of somewhere near 100 funerals, is busyness.
The busyness of grief is real, and it is something the Church has been excelling at since the very beginning. In our modern reality, a death activates all kinds of work. There’s the clergy meeting with the family to offer pastoral care and to plan a service. The organist and choir get to work practicing their music. Administrative staff work on bulletins. The Daughters of the King get busy with plans for visitation coffee and snacks. The funeral committee works on the reception. Friends and neighbors might start preparing meals. Those closest to the deceased have the most work to do. There are phone calls to make, documents to find, services to plan, travel, and any number of other details to iron out.
The Passion narratives in all four Gospels show us that the busyness of grief is nothing new. All four include details about rushing against the clock to retrieve the body of Jesus, secure a tomb, anoint his body, and lay him to rest. Several also tell of the women who prepared more spices and oils to give Jesus a fuller, proper burial, after the Sabbath was over. As is always the case in death, there was a flurry of activity in the minutes and hours that immediately followed. In John’s Gospel, the version we hear each Good Friday, the spotlight is focused on two rather surprising characters, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus. Two “secret” disciples arrive at the hour of death while the eleven Apostles are nowhere to be found. Joseph whom we’ve never met before, is, apparently, known to Pilate and a very rich and influential man who was able to secure Jesus’ body before the sunset came and he would have to remain hanging on a cross through the Sabbath. In other versions we learn that it was his tomb into which Jesus would be laid. Nicodemus makes his third appearance in John’s Gospel. We first saw him approach Jesus under the cover of darkness, and to him Jesus uttered those famous words, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that all who believe in him shall not perish but have ever lasting life.” A brief cameo comes in chapter seven, when the religious authorities first try to arrest Jesus, but it is here where we get a fuller understanding of Nicodemus, a Pharisee who also believed in Jesus, brought with him one hundred pounds of oils and spices to anoint Jesus for a hasty burial. It was their busyness that brings us to the end of the Good Friday story, where we are invited to catch our breath, to watch, and to wait.
The busyness of grief can be gift in those early days of loss. Rather than meeting grief head-on, like a freight train, the distraction of work allows us to ease our way into grief. For us, some two-thousand years later, reading the story from an ancient text, the end of the busyness and the beginning of grief seem to come quite quickly. We don’t have time to bake cookies and make some tea. No, the seeming finality of Jesus’ life and ministry hits us like a ton of bricks. Except, of course, we know the rest of the story. It would be easy to skip over the difficult emotions of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, but I would encourage you not to get caught up in the busyness of the next few days, but rather to sit in the grief. Try to understand the hopelessness of the disciples. Try to feel the anxiety of Joseph and Nicodemus. Try to appreciate the urgency of the women. Try to feel the pain of Mary.
While we don’t re-crucify Jesus here today, we would do well to take some time to experience the grief of Good Friday. The pain felt by human beings who were close to Jesus. The forsakenness that Jesus knew too well. Even the heartache that God felt at the death of love on the cross. Anger, denial, bargaining, depression – they’re all there, if we look for them – and if we take the space to experience them over the next 36 hours, we can begin to know more fully what God really did for humanity, and for each of us, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It would be easy to skip past the grief, especially after two really hard years, but I pray that today, you’ll allow yourself some time to feel the pain of Christ’s death and to come to know that the very God of the Universe experienced that same pain. In Good Friday, we come to understand that God knows hurt and heartache, even as God also knows the hope that sits just beyond the horizon. Amen.