Blessed are the poor in spirit.
Blessed are the mourners.
Blessed are the hungry and thirsty.
Blessed are the persecuted.
Of the eight blessings Christ pronounces, half of them are to those who lack. Those who are without. Without comfort, without fullness, without safety. This is the unmistakable word that blessing flows through absence. Comfort flows through mourning. Inheritance comes after loss. Fullness comes through hunger.
It is fitting that Christ begins his greatest sermon with this idea because it is the theme of the whole Scriptures, and the overture of our faith. The Church has long sung:
Sweet after bitter, hope after fears,
Home after wandering, praise after tears ...
Near after distant, gleam after gloom,
Love after loneliness, life after tomb;
A faith for winners?
The felt absence of God, indeed the very absence of God, is something to be mourned. Why am I tempted to think that Christianity is a faith for the winners, for the undivided, for the unflinching? The whole testimony of Scripture is that grace is shown to the weak, answers are given to those who question, and comfort is for those who mourn.
My faith is not made of clear cut crystal but of dark and dimmed glass. The Apostle Paul, amongst all his unflinching statements of belief (towards which I aspire), reminds us that we look through the glass darkly. Too well did he know the tempest, the shipwreck, the unanswered prayer and the unmoved, side-piercing thorn. I dwell in the valley of the shadow and do not yet see face to face.
Writer Frederick Buechner speaks well of the absence of God: 'is not just an idea to conjure with, an emptiness for the preacher to try to furnish ... to make it livable. The absence of God is just that which is not livable.'
For all the darkness and the ache I must not shy away from the absence of God. Christ taught me that on the cross: 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' The bloody, choked plea to the absent God. A prayer to a God who is not there.
Comfort in the darkness
As Matthew Lee Anderson writes, this is not unbelief—it is 'faith in a minor key'. When I cry out to the absent God it is not because I am faithless, but because I believe. I believe, somewhere far beneath 'the longing and frustration', that He 'will hear us and respond' (Anderson). It is only by searching in the dark, knocking on the door, reaching out a hand or casting a question into the silence that I allow myself to hear the gentle word of response, of presence.
This is the mournful beauty of the lament, a cry that Scripture calls me echo again and again. I must acknowledge my mourning and poverty if I am to receive comfort, the Kingdom of Heaven. It is through the confession of sin, of weakness, of doubt, of apathy, that I receive the invigorating word of Christ. To those who cry out 'I am weary and burdened! Where are you God?!' Christ says 'Come to me. I will give you rest.'
James MacLeod lives in Sydney and is starting life as a commercial lawyer.
James MacLeod's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/james-macleod.html