Earlier this week the church celebrated all Saints, and today is all Souls. A week to remember those who have gone before us.
That is why, later on today, in the 10.15 service, we will be naming the people who we, in this congregation are still grieving for. Some of those people have been dead for a long time, others have only passed away very recently. All have left a gap, an aching pain, that wants to be remembered and acknowledged. All were people who were, in one way or another, important to us, to our lives, to who we are and our journey through life.
I put my two grandmothers on the list. They died a long time ago. One when I was twelve and the other 3 years ago just after we had arrived in Melbourne. Recently, perhaps because of the preparations for this remembrance service but also perhaps of other reasons, they have been in my thoughts a lot. No longer with the sharp pain of recent bereavement, but still with the dull ache of knowing they are lost forever, that they form a chapter of my life that is now completed, that the part they played has been played out and that I have to go on without them.
They were very different women, and the way in which I miss them is very different. But still, I miss them, and I probably always will.
Reflecting on this Sunday where we remember those who have been important in our lives but are no longer with us, my thoughts turned to Mark 16 and I realised, when re-reading it, that the story might have something to tell about how we deal with bereavement and grief.
Bereavement always start with trauma: The death of a loved one. In the case of the story told in Mark 16 it is the violent and unjustified death of a very special man who was loved and deeply cared about by his friends.
Even where he is dead there is still the desire to care, to look after him, to do the best they can. They take him off the cross, lovingly tending to a body that is unable to feel anything anymore, they wrap him in cloth like they would swaddle a baby, and under floods of tears no doubt. They make sure they know where he is, even though there is no way he will ever walk and talk again. And they go back, as soon as they can, with spices, to anoint, to make sure he is alright, to make sure they give him the best they can.
It is like that with bereavement. Love doesnt stop because death puts a stop to somebody living and breathing. Time seems to slow down and it seems impossible to stop loving and caring for the one we loved. Funerals and everything that comes with them are one way for that love to find expression: in flowers and tributes, in gatherings where the persons life is celebrated and remembered, in the desire to hold on to whatever it was that made this person special.
I am sure Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome talked about Jesus on their way to the grave. Remembering the good times, remembering how special he had been for them, crying their eyes out because of their loss.
They are all confused of course. There is this large tombstone in front of the entrance. How are they going to anoint him with that in place?
I imagine it didnt really matter. I imagine, as is often the case, that they needed to do something, needed at least the feeling that they were at least trying to do something for him, one last thing, one last time to show their love and respect. Heading for a grave that has been sealed as silly as walking aimlessly around with a plate of finger food at a funeral reception.
Grief confuses , it does all sorts of things to our logical abilities and often we dont even seem to remember the most basic of things.
Those of us who have been through grief and bereavement will know that we do all sorts of silly and illogical things at a time like that.
That phase of dazed teary-eyed lost-ness and lack of orientation and sense of reality can last quite a long time. It may set in immediately after the bereavement or it can take a long time for it to take effect. It can last for weeks, years and anything in between. It can wear off suddenly and immediately or it can linger on an resurface over a very long period of time. We are all different and we will all react differently to different bereavements.
The women find the tomb empty. What they were looking for is not there. That also is an experience of grief. Longing to fill the gap we seem to be seeking for something although we are not always sure what. Yearning for a dampening of the feelings of grief we try all sorts of things, just like the women in the story: swaddling, shopping, anointing, walking. Or, in our own case: flower arranging, food preparation, talking, crying, until we suddenly discover that there is no escape. That this is how it is and how it is going to be. No longer there, no longer with us, no longer part of us.
At that point the women in the story are told to go on. To return to their lives in Galilee as before and receive the promise that there, in their ordinary back to normal lives, they will meet Christ again. That they will discover him to be with them. Close and in some ways even more alive than before.
That goes for us too. After a period of grieving, after a period of deep felt loss, we have to go back to life, pick up where we left off, continue on our journey with an emptiness that only very gradually fill with the warmth of memories, the remembered glow of love, the feeling that although we have to miss someone in the physical sense they are still with us in our hearts, and the gratefulness that that is something we will never lose.
The experience of the women and later of the disciples as they returned to their day to day life was that Jesus, who they thought was lost to them, whose death they grieved intensely and with abandon because he was so important to them, that he somehow was still with them, remained with them, and kept filling their hearts with his love and his strength and his inspiration.
Love is strong as death says the Song of Solomon. Perhaps, once we get to the New Testament and beyond the Easter Story we should say: Love is stronger than death. It will hold, even through the pain of bereavement, it is a gift of life, even through the ravages of death.
Going back to Galilee the journey starts again for the women and Jesus disciples. And they will have returned to the tomb, in figurative and probably in a literal sense, again and again. They will have felt the pain, the profound loss, the deep sense of abandonment again and again.
As we do when we grieve. The pain of missing somebody we loved is not something that will ever completely go away. It will mellow with time and the sweetness of love will take away some of the sharp pain of grieving. We will learn to deal with it better every time the memories resurface and we revisit the tomb. Every time we will need an angel however to pull us out of our revere and direct us back to life, to the journey we have been called to travel, together, walking, talking, remembering, but also taking up life as we lived it before death took its toll.
Thats the way of the gospel, that is the way of life. Not to stay where we are but to move on and accept the challenge of life where we trust that God goes with us, cherishing our memories and using our experiences of love to inspire us to loving even more ourselves. Amen.