Trinity 10: The grief of a parent
2 Samuel 18. 5-9; 15; 31-33
The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’
It was Easter Day. It was before the pandemic and any restrictions. It was a day of joy. It was a celebration of the triumph of the resurrection and our Lord’s victory over death and evil.
As always there was there was lots to do to prepare – the liturgy, the music, the flowers, the food for a meal after the service. Lots or people worked hard and some of them got up early for a service at dawn. After the parish Eucharist the vicar was tired but happy. He saw a middle aged couple that day in church that he hadn’t met before. One look at their faces told him that they didn’t share his Easter joy. And his heart fell when they told him that their son had died earlier that week. That’s why they were there – to ask him to do the funeral. Suddenly, all the joyful music and the flowers seemed jarring and discordant, mocking even. He asked them to sit with him and to tell him their story and as they told him the couple wept, they wept in yearning and grief for their dead son on Easter morning, and he felt like weeping himself.
Even when there is hope of resurrection, it is the loss in the here and now that is usually so brutally painful. It is the empty space at the table...the phone that will no longer ring with the sound your loved one’s voice...the habit of wondering what someone is doing today, only to remember that person is no longer there.
Today’s scripture lesson is about the death of another son, and a father’s anguish and lament over his death, a grief that is also lived out while everyone else is celebrating a victory.
The first lesson from 2 Samuel describes a rebellious son named Absalom, and his father, who happens to be the king. Absalom had killed his half- brother Ammon after he had raped their sister Tamar, and he had trying to undermine the rule of his father, King David, for a long time. He gathered enough of a following to try to overthrow him. This is what we would now call a dysfunctional family and a dysfunctional father-son relationship.
But King David loves his son...he tells his soldiers to deal gently with Absalom. He wages a brutal war against him to keep his throne. The fighting happens in a forest (Scripture says the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.), but Absalom survives the fighting. The story tells us that Absalom rode away on his mule after the battle but in his haste he was caught in a tree. The rabbinic tradition says that it was his long hair that caught in the branches. So he’s his caught and hanging there when some of David’s men find him. King David had told them to deal gently with his son but these men murder Absalom, piercing him with three spears as he hung there. When messengers come to David to bring news of victory, all David cares about is what happened to his son...the victory is doesn’t matter any more when David is told of Absalom’s death. He goes up to his chamber over the gate, and wept; crying out, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’
It is this lament of David for his son Absalom that was set to music so movingly by the Tudor composers Thomas Weelkes and Thomas Tompkins.
His grief is every parent’s worst nightmare. His son is lost, lost forever and now the breach between them will never be healed.
Maybe you have experienced something like David’s grief.
Our culture doesn’t really know how to do grief, just as “We don't do God,” as the former Downing Street spin doctor Alastair Campbell is reputed to have said. We don’t seem to know how to grieve, even in church. There are plenty of laments in the Bible, but not so many in Mission Praise.
It used be more common that people would wear black to signify they were in mourning. It’s a gift to be able to signify outwardly that you are grieving inwardly. The ritual of wearing black was a way to say, “please be gentle with me, I’m broken, I’m fragile, my life has been turned upside down.” There’s mercy in a ritual like that.
I think that Christians can often have deep fear and guilt about lamenting before God. Doubt and anger and grief expressed to God can seem as a lack of trust in God’s faithfulness. But what if the opposite is true? What if expressing doubt and anger and grief before God is fundamentally an act of trust? Because it is trusting God with every part of yourself...the whole of who you are...even if who you are is broken and angry and nearly ruined. Somone I know who teaches Old Testament studies in Cambridge wrote a good book about the prophet Job. It was called “Shaking a Fist at God: Struggling with the Mystery of Undeserved Suffering”.
What does David’s grief over Absalom teach us about lament and the nature of God? Why does God allow suffering? This is the question that every priest, every Christians has to face, and come back to again and again. My attempts at a response are really the most important things I have to say to you. It’s the question I think of when I remember that couple on Easter morning who had just lost their son. The Bible is full of stories of the faithful suffering...but it is also full of stories of God’s presence. We have no reason to believe we won’t suffer, but we have every reason to believe that God will be with us in our suffering.
Let’s look at Absalom. His name in Hebrew means leader of peace. In naming him, his father must have certainly hoped his son would be such a leader. Instead his son grew up to be a rebel. Absalom spent years of resentment plotting to take his Father’s kingdom. And this sin leads to his death - a murder on a tree. Spear marks in his side. Hung between heaven and earth.
Christian faith speaks of another Father and Son, and the Holy Spirit that binds them together in the great mystery that is the Trinity.
Let’s look at Jesus. He is called the prince of peace. In naming him, his father must have certainly desired him to be such a leader. Jesus is the obedient son. He spends years in healing and proclaiming His Father’s kingdom. And this leads to his death - a murder on a tree: The spear mark in his side. Hung between heaven and earth.
And in this death, God the Father doesn’t just weep for his son as David wept; Oh my son, my son, my son. God also becomes the one who shares in that death. David’s words, “Would that I had died instead of you” are made manifest in the mystery of the Trinity. God's lament for humankind, for you and for me, is embodied in the suffering love of Jesus, who hung between heaven and earth...unitng the agony of earth with the glory of heaven. So although we are like Absalom...we are the rebellious children...the Father loves us so profoundly that he sends his innocent son. He becomes the innocent son. We are not left hanging between heaven and earth. We are given the hope of resurrection. The words Would that I had died instead of you are made flesh in Christ. And yet God’s heart still breaks on Good Friday.
O my people, O my Church,
what have I done to you,
or in what have I offended you?
The reproaches that are part of the liturgy of Good Friday are God’s lament. He does not leave us to suffer on our own. He joins us in our suffering. He joins us in death. God’s promise is not that our suffering will always be taken away, or even explained before the end. God’s promise to us in our suffering is what He says to Moses on Mount Sinai at Exodus 33.14.
My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.
God is with us when we suffer. God is with us when we grieve...He knows suffering and death. He has experienced them in Christ. And He will not abandon His creation to the power of death. And those we have loved and lost already know this truth. They live and they know this truth.
A saint on Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain in Greece called St Porphyrios testified to the truth like this. One day he asked a pilgrim who was visiting him:
— Do you know the Orthodox hymn that begins, “We celebrate the slaying of death …”?
— “Yes, elder, I know it” he replied.
— “Then say it.”
—“We celebrate the slaying of death, the destroying of hell, the beginning of another way of life that is eternal. And leaping for joy, we sing a hymn to the Cause, the only blessed and most glorious God of our fathers.”
—“Do you understand it?”
—“Yes I understand” he replied. But the Elder waved his hand dismissively and said,
— “I’m not sure if you understand anything at all! You said it quickly, like someone in a hurry. Listen to what awesome things are said in this hymn: Through Christ and His resurrection, we do not get across a river, a gorge, a lake, or even the Red Sea. We have moved across an abyss that no human being could cross on his own. Ages came and went with the world waiting for this Pascha, for this passage. Our Christ passed from death to life! That’s why today ‘we celebrate the slaying of death, the destroying of hell.’ Death is no more. We celebrate today ‘the beginning of another way of life that is eternal,’ a life with Him.”
“Now there is no more chaos, no more death, no more slaying, no more Hell. Now everything is joy, thanks to the resurrection of our Christ. Human nature is resurrected with Him. Now we too can rise again that we might live with Him eternally …What bliss is contained in the Resurrection! ‘And leaping for joy, we sing a hymn to the Cause.’ Have you seen how little lambs frolic in the spring on the fresh green grass? They drink some of their mother’s milk and then prance about leaping for joy, and so do we celebrating the ineffable joy of the resurrection of our Lord.”
The elder stopped speaking but the pilgrim could feel his joy. He saint continued,
—“Can I give you some advice? In every sorrow, with every failure, in anything that causes you pain, collect yourself for half a minute and remember Easter Remember the words of this ancient hymn. Then all our setbacks and griefs will seem less significant. You will see that the most important thing in your life and in the life of the entire universe has already been accomplished with the resurrection of Christ.
For it is our salvation.
The Rev'd Dr Lames Lawson, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 08/08/2021