From Untold Sorrow to Untold Joy
Homily for the Commemoration of All Souls
Preached on November 2, 2011at St. Andrew Catholic Church, Harrodsburg KY
Readings: Isaiah 25:6, 7-9; Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6; Romans 8:31b-35, 37-39; John 19:17-18, 25-30
The first time human tears were shed upon a grave, they weren’t from a woman who had lost her beloved. They weren’t from a child who had buried his parent. They were from Adam and Eve who had laid in a tomb their son Abel, the same Abel who had been slain by his brother Cain (cf. Gn. 4:8). The Book of Genesis (4:9-15) recounts God’s reaction to this murder: God was so angry over this senseless, cruel death that He cursed Cain. Yet, the same chapter never mentions what our first parents felt over the loss of their second son: it seems that Adam and Eve were so grief stricken that the author of Genesis did not even dare to put into words what sort of anguish they endured. We can only imagine that it was at their son’s grave that the exiles of Eden realized the extent of their fall from grace. They understood that they were no longer in that garden of delight, that they now lived in this valley of tears where the unthinkable happens—brother killing brother—and the unnatural occurs—parents burying their child. Death had dominion in this realm and humanity was caught in its stranglehold. Loss was a lot to be expected; mourning was a bitter meal shared by all.
It seemed to some that there was no way out of this valley of tears. Yet, the prophet Isaiah (25:8) spoke of a mountain where the Lord of hosts will destroy death forever, where He will wipe away the tears from all faces. That mountain we call the Place of the Skull, Golgotha, (cf. Jn. 19:17) where God showed in the most shocking way that He does not intend to leave us lonesome in our sorrow. On that hill of Calvary, God shared with us that primordial loss of a son to a senseless, cruel death. “He did not spare His own Son, but handed Him over for us all” (Rm. 8:32). No longer can anyone claim that God has no idea what it’s like. He let the unthinkable happen—humanity killing Divinity—so that the supernatural might occur—for death to die so that Life might live.
The Gospels though never speak of the Father’s reaction at the death of His only Son. Matthew (28:52) tells us that the earth quaked, that boulders split, that tombs were opened. He, along with Mark and Luke, reports the sanctuary curtain being torn in two (Mt. 28:51; Mk. 16:38; Lk. 24:45). But, all these things comprise the reaction of God’s creation; what was going on in the very heart of God, none but He knows. Some would wonder whether He had abandoned His Son; after all, both Matthew (27:46) and Mark (15:34) have Jesus crying out, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” But, of one thing we are sure: the Father did what any parent would have done if he had all the power in the world: He raised His Son from the dead (Gal. 1:1) and, for His Son’s obedience to death, even death on the cross, “God highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the Name that is above every name” (Ph. 2:8-9).
The Gospel of John (19:25) alone mentions that Mary stood by Her Son’s cross but even he does not tell how She dealt with that gruesome sight of Him crucified. Just as it was once for the author of Genesis, so it seemed for this evangelist: no words could sum up that sorrow. For centuries, artists instead have portrayed Mary as the Mater Dolorosa—the Sorrowful Mother—whose heart, as Simeon had prophesied (Lk. 2:35), was pierced by seven swords. It is an image that vividly shows us that She was beyond heartbroken by this tragedy. Her pain so untold in its depth was left untold in the Gospels.
But, the Gospels are also silent on Mary’s reaction at the sight of Her Risen Son. We can only imagine that just as She suffered a sorrow no words could describe so did She experience the joy that none had dared to define. We catch but a glimpse of that joy in the Filipino tradition of the Easter Salubong: when the image of the Risen Christ encounters on the road the image of His Sorrowful Mother and an angel descends to lift Her black veil of mourning so that She might see with clear eyes the face of Her Living Son. As Isaiah (25:7) had prophesied, the veil that had veiled all peoples, including the Mother of God, had been destroyed. “The sadness of death [has given] way to the bright promise of immortality” (cf. Preface of Christian Death I). “Death no longer has dominion over Him” (Rm. 6:9) and humanity sings the alleluia of those who have been freed.
We had been lost in our grief since that hour at the beginning of time when Adam and Eve buried their son. Our sorrow like theirs, like Mary’s, has been untold and often has gone unmentioned. It has always been there, though few notice it or even remember. But, on that holy mountain, on a Friday beyond good, God showed that He is for us (Rm. 8:31), that no anguish or distress, neither death nor life, nor present things, nor future things will be able to separate us from His love in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rm. 8:35-39). Because of this, we can no longer continue to live like people crippled by death. Death is the loser here; and though he claims for a time our loved ones and inflicts us with anguish, his grip is short-lived. Behold, we are held by the hand of the Good Shepherd who had walked through this dark valley (cf. Ps. 23:4). Only He knows the way from our untold sorrow to the home where those whom we love has preceded us, that home of untold joy.