Grief and Joy

John 20:11-18

Mary Magdalene is standing just outside the tomb, crying.  Two angels are sitting in the tomb.  They look out, and see her, and ask a question that has often frustrated me:

“Why are you crying?”

I remember the first time I got asked that.  I wasn’t quite a teenager yet, but almost.  I was standing just outside my parents’ master bathroom, crying.  Uncontrollably.  My mom was rightfully mystified by the behavior of her oldest child.  “Mary Catherine, why are you crying?” she asked.

I didn’t know.  I still don’t know.  I have no idea.

As an adult I still haven’t gained a complete understanding of my tears.  When I cry at movies like Dead Poets Society or My Girl, that makes sense – any human being with half a stone-cold heart would have their tears jerked at those tear-jerkers.  But why did I cry at the end of Emoji Movie?  Why??

I don’t know.  Please don’t ask me.

But sometimes… we do know.  Sometimes, the cry has been long in coming.  Mary Magdalene explains herself to the angels:  “They’ve taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have laid him.”  That’s the presenting issue, at least.  Underneath that tip of the iceberg is this terrible fact:  Jesus is dead.

I wonder if this is the first time Mary has cried over Jesus’ death.  When Mary arrives at the tomb in John 20:1, no tears are reported.  But now the tomb is empty, and maybe that is the last emotional straw.  Not only is Jesus dead – his body is desecrated.  He was disrespected in life and now in death, too.

At the sight of it, Mary cries.

I know this feeling:  the long-delayed cry.  It’s equally mysterious to me.

When my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I didn’t cry.  Not enough for how devastating that news was, at least.  She was 58; I was 36.  Both ages felt far too young for something like this.  When my dad said the words “brain tumor” and “stage 4” over the phone, they hit me like a sucker punch – but there was no time for a crying spell.  I had to get myself and two small kids across four states to my home town, ASAP.

Time passed.  We settled into a new life with radiation and chemo.  Mom got a little better… and then much worse.  I felt deeply sad, but I still didn’t cry –not anything more than a few little tears here and there.  I wondered what was wrong with me.  My mom was terminally sick.  Why wasn’t I crying?

Then it happened.  I can’t remember if it was after she passed, or when she entered her last few days in hospice care.  Sometime toward the end I was lying in bed and the tears came – violently, as though they were coming straight out of my gut.  I felt deep grief.  I also felt a kind of relief – eighteen months of sadness finally coming to the surface.

Crying is so strange.  Grief is so strange.  And here’s Mary Magdalene, crying over the death of her friend and Savior.  Her deep feelings have come to the surface.  She can’t hide them.  The angels see and want to know why.  Then the gardener sees Mary’s tears – a man she hadn’t noticed before.  Now here he is, also wanting to know, “Woman, why are you weeping?


Christ and St. Mary Magdalene at the Tomb, Rembrandt van Rijn (1638)


Mary hears him and jumps to a conclusion.  He took him, she thinks.  He took Jesus’ body.  He moved it somewhere.

When she turns on him, can we read anger in her response?  “If you’ve carried him away, tell me where you’ve laid him!”  If there’s anger there, I’ve felt that, too.  It’s another strange part of grief.  When tragedy strikes we want someone to blame.  There were days when I was grieving mom’s death and I wanted to go out back and smash dishes into a tree.  I wanted a gardener to show up that I could blame and hit with all my anger.  Is Mary doing that?

But then the gardener says one word that changes everything:  her name.

“Mary,” Jesus says.  In an instant, she changes.  The anger releases like a fist un-clenching.  The crying passes in a single, liberating exhale.  She turns; she breathes in a gasp of hope and joy.  She knows the man standing in front of her.  “Rabbouni,” she says – which means not just “teacher,” but “my teacher.”

Oh – don’t we all want that?  When we lose a loved one or our health or a relationship or our reputation… when we experience a deep, cutting loss… when the dark mystery of grief gives us tears we can’t explain or a strange lack thereof…  If only some “gardener” would come along right then and say our names and change it all.

Someone has.  Someone is.  Someone will.

Jesus has made a promise that what happened for Mary can happen for us all.

“Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.  When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come.  But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of having brought a human being into the world.  So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:20-23).

Our weeping and mourning will one day turn into joy.  That is an incredible promise – but I believe it.  I am living it.

The grief after my mom’s death was hard; if you’ve lost someone close to you, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  The grief was dark and unpredictable.  I remember at one moment thinking, “I could let this drive me crazy.”

But something kept me from crazy.  Something has grown stronger than the grief:  faith in the promise represented by an empty tomb.

This promise isn’t easy to believe.  I won’t pretend that it is.  There have been times when I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is it all false hope?  Will I really get to see my mom again?”  In those moments, quietly but strongly, I have felt the Holy Spirit’s nudge.  I have heard God’s almost-silent voice.  I have been reminded of the promise:

“In my Father’s house are many dwelling places.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3).

My pain is still there – and in a way, I don’t mind it.  My love for my mom was big.  It makes sense that my grief would also be big.  But bigger is the joy – a joy that grows as I grow in faith, a joy that grows as this promise comes closer to being realized.

One day.  One day our tears and pain will become joy.

Do you need this promise today?

Have you been crying?

Maybe you’ve been crying and you don’t know why.  Or maybe you want to cry and the tears aren’t coming.  Or maybe your tears are spot-on, an accurate representation of the loss you feel.

If you are in the dark mystery of grief, know this:  You are not its prisoner.  Not forever.

Stop and listen.  Your name is being called.

Jesus is calling you.  Jesus sees your crying, your pain.  Jesus is holding out his hand and making you a promise.

Imagine yourself taking that hand, going with Jesus, following him.  You can’t see all of the path ahead, but you can see one thing in the far distance.


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