Over the holidays I was approached at a party by a friend whose eyes were filled with tears. She had lost her dad earlier in the year, and she still grieving. The fact that it was Christmastime only made things worse, as it often does. My friend also shared with me that her dad’s death was affecting her faith. She said: “I’m not really sure what I believe any more.” God seemed very distant to her. She was wondering if God even existed at all.
My friend’s experience is not unusual. When someone close to us dies, we’re often forced to take a good hard look at our beliefs– beliefs we may have been taking for granted. It can seem as if God doesn’t care; we can feel as if God has abandoned us; we can think that we’re being punished. But in reality Jesus understands what we’re going through. And he doesn’t leave us to face our crisis alone. When we’re filled with grief, Jesus is right there beside us, whether we’re able to recognize it or not.
We can see Jesus’ love for those who grieve in the gospel account of the Transfiguration. Jesus knew that his death was approaching. Jesus knew also that his death would leave his disciples sad, confused, and angry. So he took three of them-Peter, James and John- up to a mountaintop, to show them something they would never forget. On that mountaintop, Jesus was transfigured before them. The disciples were awestruck by the magnificence of his glory, amazed to see him speak with Moses and Elijah, and knocked to their knees upon hearing the voice of God the Father himself. Jesus blessed his friends with this experience to leave them with a memory that would be a source of hope when it would be easy to despair, and a sign that his story would end, not with death and a cross, but with resurrection and an empty tomb.
I imagine that many of us here today have been through a significant experience of grief. At some point, all of us will, as we face the death of those we love. And of course, death isn’t the only thing that can lead to grief. There’s also divorce, the loss of a job, suffering a major illnesses, and moving away from a beloved home, just to name a few. Grief is inevitable. Today’s transfiguration gospel, however, gives us five clues about how we as Christians can prepare for, face, and emerge on the other side grief.
First, we need to prepare ourselves beforehand, just as Jesus prepared his disciples for his death. To do this, we need to develop our relationship with God now. Because if God is a stranger to us today, chances are he will still be a stranger to us when grief strikes. We need something to fall back on when things fall apart.
Second, we need to embrace our memories. Jesus wanted his friends to remember his transfiguration in the hours and days after his death. We too need to remember how God has touched our lives in special ways. This will help us to trust and to endure during difficult times. If we’re grieving someone who has died, we need to hang on to and celebrate the good memories we have of that person. And if there are bad memories, then we can’t ignore them either. Perhaps we’ll need to forgive that person for things they did to us. Perhaps we’ll need to forgive ourselves for things we did to them.
Third, we need to reach out to others for their support. It’s been said that misery loves company. But misery is more miserable when we face it alone. That’s why Jesus shared the transfiguration with three disciples, and not just one, because after his death, he didn’t want them to suffer alone. And he doesn’t want us to suffer alone either. When we grieve, others can pray for us, pray with us, give us practical help, and bolster our faith by sharing their stories of how the Lord may have help them during their time of grief.
Fourth, we need to express our grief. Jesus shared his transfiguration with his friends because he knew they would be sad after his death. Jesus himself had wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. And it’s okay for us to cry too. When someone we love has died, sometimes people say things like: “He’s in a better place now;” or “At least she’s not suffering any more;” or “I guess God needed another angel.” They mean well. But there’s an implication that we should cheer up, or even that our sadness is selfish somehow. But tears aren’t selfish. They’re a sign of our loss, and often a sign of our love.
Fifth, we need to pray while we grieve, even if we don’t feel much like praying. We may think that we can’t pray, because we associate prayer with feelings of warmth and peace. Any when we’re grieving, we usually feel anything but warm and peaceful. But prayer isn’t just about happy feelings. Prayer is an honest communication between us and God. If we’re feeling angry, confused, hurt, or hopeless, we need to share this with God, even if we think he isn’t going to like what we have to say! At the same time, we need to listen to the voice of Jesus spoken to us in Scripture, just as God the Father told the disciples to do on the Transfiguration mount.
The truth is that when we grieve, God knows exactly how we feel, and God knows what we’re thinking. There’s no sense trying to hide it from him, especially since he loves us so much. And because he loves us, he won’t allow grief to have the final word. Because for we Christians, it is our resurrection hope that night is always followed by the morning, and that grief can be transfigured into joy.
Readings for today’s Mass: http://www.usccb.org/nab/032011.shtml