We are, among other things, a church which is grieving. That insight, that we are suffering in this particular way, that we are a church which is grieving, is, I believe, very important and needs to be understood. We are a grieving community. What does this mean?
We grieve when something that is loved and precious to us is lost or broken. What, in our experience of church, has been lost or fractured? What have we loved and lost?
Put metaphorically, we have lost a certain Christ, a certain Jesus and a certain church, we once had. Now, like the first disciples after the crucifixion, we are experiencing loss, are walking with face and spirit downcast, are wanting our old Jesus back, and are lamenting what once was and what, in our own scheme of things, might have been. Some previous peace and harmony has been fractured, broken, pierced with a soldier’s lance. Something’s died and we are sad.
What? What has been fractured? What have we lost? A certain stability, simplicity, clarity, harmony, peacefulness, ordinary time, and healthy joy and pride in our church and its institutions, that’s what we’ve lost. A quarter century ago, whatever it faults, church life was not short of these. Today, whatever its virtues, church life is short on them.
This is not to say that what has happened is bad and that what was is good. No. That would be far too simplistic. Value judgements can be made about this, but that is not our point here. For our purposes, we want only to emphasize the fact of this, that a massive transition has taken place, that something has died and something else has been born, that something that was precious to us has been lost and that we grieve because of this.
For better and for worse, the particular church we once knew, the pre-Vatican II church of latin masses, Gregorian chant, universal catechisms, First Friday promises, forty hour devotions, spiritual bouquets, Friday fasts, full convents and rectories, where Father knew best, and where there was, for the most part, an unquestioning acceptance of authoritative pronouncements on dogma and morals is no more. The church still is, but that particular expression has, for the most part, disappeared. In its place there is a life that exhibits more ambiguity than clarity, criticalness than obedience, hermeneutics than devotion, complexity than simplicity, hyper-sensitivity than naivete, tension than harmony, self-hatred than pride, and urgency than ordinary time. Something has died and something else has been born and we must, in faith, name our deaths and claim our births – but also grieve those deaths reverently and properly. We are dealing with a crucified body of Christ and this calls both for tears and gentleness.
Something precious has died and we aren’t grieving properly. Our generation has lived through the death of a very beautiful and powerful expression of Christianity (whatever its faults!) and hardly anyone is actually grieving. For the most part, we are either into denial and clinging (the sin of the conservative) or into hatred and distortion of our past (the sin of the liberal). Both of these attitudes are blockages in the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit can only be received when, first, one lives through the “forty days”, a time of adjustment and grieving.
Few images, I believe, are as helpful to our self-understanding today as is this image of the “forty days” between Christ’s resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit. This time was, for the disciples of Jesus, a time of grieving, a time of adjustment wherein they had to let go of the pre-resurrected Jesus so as to receive the post-resurrected Christ. It wasn’t easy for them. They wanted their old Jesus back and they had to be gently told: “Don’t cling to me!” This was a time, too, where they had to have their imaginations reshaped, where all the old scriptures and dreams had to be re-interpreted in the light of a new crucifixion – “wasn’t it necessary that the Jesus you knew had to so suffer and die … ” There were, I suspect, a lot of heartaches, tears, objections, and misunderstandings during those forty days and attempts at denial, clinging, hatred of the past, and distortion (for every age has its conservatives and liberals). After a time of grief, however, they were able to let the old body of Jesus ascend so as to receive his new spirit.
Like the first Christians, we too are living in a time of adjustment, the “forty days” before pentecost. We are a grieving community. Let us handle the crucified body of Christ, each other, and ourselves with more gentleness.