Finding Joy in Sorrow

Homily for Sunday, January 7, 2018
The First Sunday After the Epiphany
Mark 1:4–11

Thoughtful Grief Sorrow Sadness Alone DeathThis morning’s homily is about joy.  Which I say from the get-go because it is also about being wounded and about sorrows and how we Christians continually tell again and again, in the scriptures and sacraments, the story of Jesus’ Passion.  So I want to be clear from the get-go that the News is ultimately good, that with Jesus, there is always the possibility of joy.

I want to begin with Christian Wiman’s beautifully-written piece, “The Limit,” (The Threepenny Review, Fall, 2001).  “The Limit” is ostensibly about Wiman’s growing up in Texas and his experience of one day going dove hunting with his friend John and John’s dad, and how John accidentally shot his dad in the face.  (He survived.)  But “The Limit” is really about wounds and sorrow and how—in the way we tell stories about our wounds and sorrows—it is possible to find healing, even joy.  Wiman says that what is important in the telling of these stories is not so much the “facts,” but what we remember and how we tell about what we remember.  Of being a writer, then, Wiman muses:

It’s one of the more ruthless things about being a writer, that to cast an experience into words is in some way to lose the reality of the experience… to sacrifice the fact of it to whatever imaginative pattern one’s wound requires.

This Sunday marks the second Sunday in a row that we hear from the opening chapter of a Gospel: last Sunday we heard from the opening of John; this Sunday from Mark.  John and Mark are writers who tell the same story, the same facts, but—as we can see from the ways they introduce their story—they remember and cast those facts very differently.  Last Sunday John opened his Gospel with lofty words such as “the beginning,” and “the Word,” and God and fullness and glory and grace and truth.  John sets a magisterial tone for his telling of the story, and John’s Jesus carries the aura of the unperturbed sovereign calmly delivering his message and resolutely marching to his death.  Mark, on the other hand, begins the story in a river bottom, with human bodies getting wet, muddy and cold; and with words such as “wilderness” and “locusts” and “the thong of his sandals.”  The two remember and cast things very differently.  To borrow from Wiman, each remembers and tells the story in the “imaginative pattern [their community’s] wound requires.”  The wounds of John’s deeply Jewish community—being thrown out of the synagogue and cut off from friends and family—are tended to very differently than the wounds of Mark’s community—a community undergoing persecution from secular authorities, a persecution to which they see no end.

It’s a curious way to seek healing, to tell again and again a story of suffering and loss.  One would think that to repeatedly tell a story of suffering and loss would continually reactivate the wound and preclude healing.  Yet telling the story of Jesus’ Passion again and again is just what John’s and Mark’s communities do; in this, they coincide.  They tell the story of Jesus’ Passion and death again and again both in their Gospels and in the Eucharist, the sacrament whereby we remember his Passion.  They tell this story again and again because they discovered that, in a strange, strange way, continually reactivating the wound—this wound, Jesus’ wound—is just the medicine needed for their community’s healing.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe ancients believed that the pelican fed its offspring by piercing its own breast and letting its young drink the blood, the mother doing this again and again to sustain her brood.  The symbol of the pelican frequently appears in early Christian art, the pelican’s—Jesus’—wound being reactivated again and again to provide healing.

Far from making Christianity a macabre religion that might leave us worse off with it than without it, it is Christianity’s “wound reactivation programme” that offers us hope.  As grief and gratitude are closely related, as hate and love are really two sides of the same coin, as anger and ecstasy share much the same place in our inner circuitry, so are sorrow and joy closely connected.  To be fully healed—to “enter into the joy of our master”—means that we continually walk a tightrope between wounds and healing, between sorrow and joy.

The Russian poet Anna Kamienska, who came to Christianity in her late 40’s after the sudden death of her husband, wrote a poem that beautifully captures this two-sided coin of sorrow and joy, of wounds and healing.  Kamienska’s faith seems to have brought her equal amounts both.  Even the title—“A Prayer That Will Be Answered”—rather hangs us in suspense:

Lord let me suffer much
and then die

Let me walk through silence
and leave nothing behind not even fear

Make the world continue
let the ocean kiss the sand just as before

Let the grass stay green
so that the frogs can hide in it

so that someone can bury his face in it
and sob out his love

Make the day rise brightly
as if there were no more pain

And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane
bumped by a bumblebee’s head

green grassJohn’s and Mark’s Gospels, along with the Eucharist, continually reactivate the wound.  To help us experience—to experience and not repress—anger, grief, our hatreds, our sorrows, the violence that has been done to us, and the violence of which we ourselves are all capable… we tell the story of Jesus’ suffering and death to reactivate these wounds, to be sure, and also to reactivate the one wound, suffered by Jesus in his Passion.  For as we remember his wounds—the wounds that caused him to “suffer much and then die”—we find the possibility, not just of healing, but of joy.  We find the possibility for “the world to continue… the ocean [kissing] the sand just as before,” for the “grass [to] stay green so that… someone can bury his face in it and sob out his love,” for “the day [to] rise brightly as if there were no more pain.”

Whatever may be the “facts” of our lives, what is more important is how we cast our experiences into words, how we find the “imaginative pattern” that our wounds require for healing.  Baptism is the “imaginative pattern” whereby we enter the Church’s healing “wound reactivation programme.”  In Baptism we cast our story alongside his story and make his story our story.  In Baptism we make his body and blood our body and blood.  In Baptism we become continually wounded as he is wounded… so that we might continually be healed as he is healed.  It matters not how much we are wounded; it matters not how difficult or sorrow-filled our circumstances may be.  What matters is that we cast our lot into the Gospels’ and Sacraments’ pattern of death and resurrection, of sorrow and joy, of wounds and healing.  For in Christ, we have the possibility of being healed; in him, we have the possibility of finding joy.

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