Beauty for Ashes

Blessed are they that mourn:
For they shall be comforted.

   THE BEATITUDE is saying quite simply that if we mourn, we shall receive comfort and blessing, and that if we do not, the blessing will be withheld. It thereby faces us with a dilemma, for too many of us mourning is a lost art. We scarcely know what it means, so how can we practice it? The word has slipped out of our vocabulary.

   Until quite recent times mourning was a well-recognized human activity. Even in our own country special clothing was prescribed for the mourners: the arm bands, the widow's weeds, the mourning cloak. Not only was there mourning for death, there was mourning for sin. In many churches of a hundred years ago the front pew was reserved as a "mourner's bench" for worshipers who were under conviction by the Holy Spirit.

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Today it is a mark of the age that we do none of these things. If we do not whistle in public, neither do we mourn. We simply try to carry on and battle it through. We may be upset, we may analyze our case histories, we may fall apart, we may leap from a bridge, but we do not mourn.

   It becomes important to discover what Jesus means by this Beatitude. Why should we mourn?

   Let us start at the Cross. Perhaps the view from Calvary will give us the right perspective. Who were the mourners at the Cross? There were Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the wife of Cleophas, and perhaps Salome. A few men mourned, too, scattered through the jeering and whipped-up crowd. There were Joseph of Arimathaea, and Nicodemus, and John, and the Roman centurion, and one of the thieves. Not many, considering the size of the throng. Was there another? Yes, one more: Jesus Christ Himself. As He hung on the Cross, He mourned, and we would do well to study His grief first.

   Jesus Christ mourned with compassion for His fellow man: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." His sensitivity embraced everything from the fall of the sparrow to an obscure widow's eviction. He mourned first of all for the human race that ignored the free gift of life He offered, and that felt it "expedient" (to use the word of Caiaphas) to crucify Him. He pitied the thralldom of disease and sin and death in which His brethren were held. We cannot understand the radiance of Jesus' life until we understand that He was one who

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mourned  at the grave of Lazarus, on the brow of Jerusalem, in Gethsemane and on the Cross.

   If we seek the kinetic power of the Christian life, therefore, we have uncovered a secret clue; it is mourning. Some call it "concern." Some call it "carrying a burden." Others, "being sensitive to human need." Take this quality out of human life and you have destroyed humanity. Develop it and the race is blessed.

   Compassionate mourning can take a variety of forms. A mother's heart skips a beat when she hears of the suffering of a child: this is mourning. An honest citizen is shocked to learn of the bad news that has come to a neighbor: this is mourning. God uses such hearts creatively, and gives them strength and comfort. The pitiable person is not the mourner but the one who finds his solace in other people's woes. For him God provides no blessing; instead there is the ominous suggestion of the word of the Lord to Malachi: "I will curse your blessings."

   Spiritual awakening has never come to a people who have not mourned. No one can become a truly evangelical Christian without having been given a burden for the salvation of his fellow man. Paul declared, "I say the truth in Christ . . . that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren . . . that they might be saved" (Romans 9:1-3; 10:1). It was out of such a concern that the Christian faith sprang, and when that concern dies, Christianity will die. We need to remind ourselves of this truth. No sociological goals, no "adapted programs for special community needs" will

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compensate for the drive to seek out the lost. The Gospel goes where the mourners go.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

   We are to mourn not only for the suffering of the world, but for the sin of the world, including our own sin. Walt Whitman wrote some well-known lines in Leaves of Grass which expressed his admiration for "the animals" who are "so placid and self-contained" and "do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins." The verse was intended not as a compliment to animals but as a rebuke to Christians of a certain type. Unfortunately, it threw the whole moral question into the animal kingdom. The capacity to be sorry for one's sins is one of the distinguishing marks of true humanity, that is to say, of humanity under God. The sensitive conscience may be the butt of much of the world's spite, but it is God's strongest weapon in the soul of man.

   When Peter pleaded, "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" (Luke 5:8), he was going through the same ordeal of fire that every Christian must undertake within himself. The life in Christ is not a life of constant introspection but it does require periodic self-examination. If our prayers are all praise and thanksgiving or all supplication and intercession, without any attention to the shortcomings and failures of our daily walk, it is not long before our lives begin to show serious deformity. The psychologists who would rid their patients of all guilt feelings are as wrong as the preachers of law without Grace. How can anyone ever absorb the New Testament

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teaching of forgiveness through the Lord Jesus Christ until he has come to a state of mourning for his sins? Jesus is no Savior until we are aware of our need to be saved.

   The Israelite mourned not only for his own sins but for those of his nation. Do you remember the cry of Isaiah before God in the temple? "Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips . . ." (Isaiah 6:5). At the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem the succeeding generations for well over two thousand years have mourned, not just for the misfortune of the Babylonian exile, but for the national sin that, according to their prophets, was punished by God's judgment in the exile. By the same token, the healthiest thing that could happen to America today would be a period of nation-wide mourning. For what? For events of the past, or the present, or for dread of the future? No; rather for the sin that brings judgment upon a people.

   When a Christian thinks of such incidents as have taken place at Little Rock (racism), he may feel an impulse to take remedial action: to write a letter, to join a group, to make a contribution, or to treat his fellow man with more love. Such impulses are right and good. What happened at Little Rock, however, requires of God's people more than social activity; it calls for mourning. Without that grief and sorrow, well-intended social action so often turns out to be mostly nervous reaction. It takes tears to make an ethical action real, otherwise it is simply indignation  it is Peter cutting off the ear of

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Malchus. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.

   Not long ago a dead dog was being "orbited" through space. Doubtless its place will soon be taken by a dead man. Can anyone contemplating the "scientific advance" since Hiroshima doubt that somewhere, somehow, the human race has acquired a fatal defect or flaw that is really a passport to doom? The old Dutch doctor in one of Somerset Maugham's South Seas yarns remarked, "Life is short, nature is hostile and man is ridiculous." When we think of the infinite possibilities for good that lie within the human breast, of the tremendous resourcefulness of men, their courage and sacrifice in adversity, their capacity for love and kindliness, and then see what the race is up to, what can we Christians do but mourn?

   Consider Jesus of Nazareth, the most generous-hearted person who ever lived. He never refused a request for help. "Great multitudes followed him, and he healed them all" (Matthew 12:15). He went out of His way to cross racial and religious barriers. He compassed the whole world in His love. Study Him as He set His face to go to Jerusalem: note the honest way in which He dealt with friends and opposition alike; see how each interview left Him stronger in reliance upon His Father and nobler in the eyes of men. In the midst of the tension and controversy that surrounded Him there was a calm that can only be described as holy. It was a good life, a glorious life, and it ended with all the vulgarity of a street accident.

   God pity us if we do not mourn for the tragedy of life

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as it is lived out, and has been lived since our first parents, in sin compounded and woe multiplied. Yet the Gospel proclaims that in the midst of such mourning — not in spite of it, and not to the left or right of it — we are blessed.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

   A natural cause of mourning is the transitoriness of life. Death is the raw material of the poets, who have turned mourning into a fine art. Thus Shakespeare:

Out, out, brief candle,
Life's but a walking shadow

and Keats:

She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die

and Shelley:

O weep for Adonais, he is dead

and Tennyson:

Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just.

and Arnold:

And we are here as on a darkling plain

and Fitzgerald:

A Moment's Halt—a momentary taste
Of Being from the Well amid the Waste—
And, Lo! the phantom Caravan has reach'd
The Nothing it set out from

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and Thompson: 

Whether man's heart or life it be which yields
Thee harvest, must Thy harvest-field
Be dunged with rotten death?

   Noble as are these expressions of pathos, they cannot match the description of death in the words of Scripture:

Because man goeth to his long home,
and the mourners go about the streets:
or ever the silver cord be loosed,
or the golden bowl be broken,
or the pitcher be broken at the fountain
or the wheel broken at the cistern.

(Ecclesiastes 12:5-6)               

   The Christian Gospel has never dodged the truth: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yet there are those who consider it indecent to mourn for death; who believe that tears in a Christian suggest a lack of equipoise. Mourning is even classified by some shallow interpreters of modern living with melancholia and manic depression. Better psychologists, however, know that the mourners have always been a healthier people than those of a more stoical frame of mind. The rigid shutting off of bodily juices in the face of tragedy so often manages to turn people into something less than men. The discipline that masks all feeling in a show of bravado or sangfroid is a

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fool's discipline. It plays ostrich with reality, for the truth is that every human being is doomed. The mark of fate is upon each of us; we may eat, drink, and be merry, but tomorrow we die. It is the mourner who comes to grips with this reality; so that, far from being a victim of gloom, he is made through Christ the conqueror of it.

   To illustrate, a father who suffers the bereavement of a beloved child may go through his personal catastrophe dry-eyed. He may consider any betrayal of emotion to be a sign of weakness or even of lack of faith. He may sternly "carry on" his daily life without interruption. In such an experience even though we may not mourn outwardly, our bodies do. In odd, strange ways, not always healthy, the heart serves notice that it is dressed in black; for man is mortal, and he cannot help mourning his mortality. How much better that grief should express itself in normal fashion; how much more comfort in true mourning!

   The Scriptures suggest a link between human nature (the problem of sin) and human destiny (the certainty of death). "By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned" (Romans 5:12). Without going into all the implications of the passage, we can see that Paul is suggesting that the shortness of life is bound up with the evil in the world. When Mary Magdalene stood weeping at the tomb of Jesus, her heart was broken not only because of the Life that had been extinguished, but because of the deed that caused it. To mourn for sin and

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to mourn for death are but two sides of the same cloth. The poets have always known it. It is important for us to learn it too.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

   Note the absoluteness of the Beatitude's statement: the blessing will not fail to come. Comfort, of course, is derived from the words "con" and "fort" meaning "with strength," and behind the promise of this word stands the resurrection of Jesus Christ, where total defeat was turned into glorious victory. Thus the valley of the shadow of death becomes our main highway to the life of goodness and mercy. There are no side exits; it is a throughway, a turnpike. If we mourn, things will be better. God will bless.

   There is a passage in Isaiah which follows immediately after the famous verses quoted by Jesus Christ in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:18). The passage reads:

   The spirit of the Lord God is upon me . . . to comfort all that mourn . . . to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified (Isaiah 61:1-3).

There are no more beautiful phrases in the English language, but there is more here than literary excellence.

   The promise to the Christian is that "if we be dead with him, we shall also live with him: if we suffer, we shall

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also reign with him" (2 Timothy 2:11-12). The distinction between worry and mourning is that one brings enslavement, the other, release.

   If we possess that sensitivity of spirit that enables us to enter into the agony of mankind, we shall be given in reward the lifting of the Spirit who will keep us from being smothered by the agony. If we make our "quiet time" of worship a period of genuine empathy, of sorrow in prayer, of participation and involvement in what may well seem (humanly speaking) to be the death throes of the race, then there is hope for us. If God will not honor our service, He may honor our tears.

   Peter taught us that the sufferings of Jesus Christ are a pattern for us to follow. John painted on a mighty canvas the picture of those who "came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Revelation 7:14). Paul and Silas received the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness, as, with sore backs, they sang songs at midnight in the jail at Philippi.

Some through the water,
Some through the flood,
Some through the fire,
But all through the blood;

Some through great sorrow,
But God gives a song
In the night seasons
And all the day long.

   The comfort of this Beatitude means, finally and precisely, joy: beauty for ashes, and the oil of joy for

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mourning. But joy is not simply a sentimental word like pleasure or happiness. Joy has a clean tang and bite to it, the exhilaration of mountain air. Joy, according to the Letter to the Hebrews, is what sent Jesus of Nazareth to the Cross. It was a joy in prospect, and for the Christian, fulfillment today is never complete; there is always joy in prospect. That final joy is suggested in John Bunyan's description of the death of Valiant for Truth in Pilgrim's Progress: "So he passed over and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side." That is how a Christian goes home!

   Meanwhile there is a gladness that is real and that is present. The disciples felt it when, in the days following the Crucifixion, Jesus appeared and stood in their midst (John 20:20). He bore "tidings of comfort and joy," for no one can mourn or weep for long when Jesus is around. The things He brings are cheer and courage and good news. Depressed spirits simply cannot stay depressed in His presence.

   Today in the name of Jesus great world-wide organizations are engaged in a ceaseless task of providing comfort for the mourners: One Great Hour of Sharing, The Salvation Army, Church World Service, the Red Cross, World Vision, and others. As they feed the hungry and clothe the naked and provide shelter for the homeless, they are bringing the same good cheer that Christ spread wherever He went. Even more, the Church that unashamedly proclaims the New Testament message of salvation is bringing comfort that is genuine rejoicing, for it is producing God's richest fruit in new men and women.

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   All this was made possible through the Cross. Jesus spoke repeatedly of the meaning of His forthcoming suffering, death, and resurrection, yet none of the disciples understood. Had they done so, they would not have been scattered and confused at the last. They did not see what the Savior saw, that while man crucified Him intentionally and "meant it for evil," God meant it for good. If there had been no ashes of Gehenna there would have been no beauty of the Resurrection. If there had been no atoning death there would have been no redemption. No mourning, no joy and no blessing.

   We can be glad that God raised up mourners, for to them He gave comfort that leaps beyond the Cross, beyond the Resurrection, even beyond Pentecost, and takes us into the very heart of the Book of Acts and the glorious, joyful life of the early Church.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

   As we distinguish the true meaning of "mourning" we find it necessary to sift out the false. Mourning, as Jesus described it, must never be construed to suggest self-pity. Preoccupation with one's own woes, carping, and plaintiveness have no stake in this Beatitude. Jesus certainly did not teach, "Blessed are they that moan"!

   A letter was shown me from one who has steadfastly refused to be reconciled to the death of a mate. "After all these years I still cannot accept it," the letter ran, "I just grieve and grieve and grieve."

   All of us recognize that there is a kind of mourning that is a drag upon life. It is perhaps better described not as mourning but as mournfulness. Some mournful types

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tend to give healthy-minded Christians the "creeps." They seem to cast such a pall over everything, and to try to turn existence into an endless dirge. Nothing is ever right. Even the topic of the weather becomes a conversational maneuver to expose one's miseries in a fresh appeal for sympathy. The chirping of the "Pity-Me Bird" can be insatiable as well as incessant.

   We have seen that mourning, as we have considered it, exemplifies the Spirit and mind of Christ, but the mournfulness of which I now speak more closely resembles the Pharisee. The former suggests the divine compassion of our Lord, the latter indicates a psychological state of depression. The one offers relief and release through divine blessing, the other offers a prospect of solid and perpetual gloom.

   "Moaning," if I may use the expression, is nevertheless one of the favorite activities of the human race. Psychiatrists are paid as high as fifty dollars an hour to listen to it. Divorce complaints in county courthouse files are filled with it. Everybody does it; sometimes it seems that to meet is to talk is to "moan." Yet nowhere in Scripture is it promised that the "moaners" will be comforted or blessed, and life upholds the Word of God. It is the bitter lesson of experience that the man who builds Dismal Castle will have to live in it. Those who make the most of trifles will eventually be given a condition worthy of their exercises in complaining.

   My wish for you is that by the Grace of God you may become a true mourner; that by His Spirit you may be empowered to put aside the daily ration of gripe and

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beef, and capture again the vision of your vocation as a son or daughter of God. How much more easily we run the race of life, when these weights are dropped off! Then we learn anew the rich, strong meaning of "comfort": not comfort that lulls or cuddles like a hot-water bottle or a baby's pacifier; but comfort "with strength" that sounds a trumpet note of deliverance! "Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished" (Isaiah 40:2).

   We take our leave of this Beatitude with thanksgiving and with a promise to return to it, for we have learned much. We have discovered — what we already suspected — that the growth and maturity of a Christian is not achieved simply by leaping from one joyous experience to another. There is a process of mourning that must also be passed through; and it could well be said that man is most truly man when he mourns, for out of the crucible God molds the polished instrument, fit for the hand of the Master. Out of the spirit of heaviness the new man emerges, clad in the garment of praise. So long as his mourning is according to the mind of Christ, the Christian is secure in the knowledge of blessing.

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