Jesus Wept: Pandemic Grief and the Fifth Sunday of Lent

As I sit down to write, the latest headlines state that as of today, the United States has the highest number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 of any country in the world. Part of what makes this so frightening is that we know we are still on the upward slope of this pandemic: the foreseeable tsunami of people experiencing respiratory distress and the resulting strain on our healthcare system due to the coronavirus has yet to crest, bringing untold numbers of deaths and other forms of suffering.

While the greatest losses and challenges are likely still to come, we are nevertheless collectively experiencing a kind of grief right now due to the practice of social distancing and other early impacts of the pandemic on our lives. The loss of daily interaction with friends and coworkers, the cancellation of travel plans and events that we have looked forward to, the economic losses, and our inability to gather as communities of faith—these losses are real, and so is our grief.

“Jesus Pleura” by James Tissot
The gospel selection for this Fifth Sunday of Lent seems fitting in light of these circumstances, not just because of its attention to the promise of resurrection, but its attention to human grief. As the story begins, Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, has fallen ill. Upon hearing the news, Jesus does not go to him immediately—possibly because doing so would endanger his own life (v. 8, 16). Jesus arrives at Bethany and both sisters—deep in grief and also likely fear at the loss of their brother—in turn confront him with the accusatory statement that “if you had been here, he would not have died,” (21, 32). When Jesus sees Mary and the people with her weeping, “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” and began to weep publicly (33, 35). The scripture mentions a second time that Jesus is “greatly disturbed” as he comes to the tomb where Lazarus is buried.

We know, of course, that Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead—as God promises to bring forth life from death for his people in the first reading—and we can find hope and reassurance in that. But what is equally, if not more, important to recognize in this week’s gospel is that Jesus does not “skip over” the experience of human grief. We should not assume that his weeping and the great disturbance of his spirit were mere show—even though he held power over death. This recognition should free us to acknowledge our own grief—to experience all the emotions of sadness and anger and disappointment and frustration that come with real losses—even if we ultimately have faith and hope in God’s promise to bring life from death.

I recently read an interview with David Kessler, who collaborated with Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on the book On Grief and Grieving (an elaboration of the “five stages of grief” which she first articulated in her now-classic 1964 text On Death and Dying). In it, Kessler explains,

There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. So many have told me in the past week, “I’m telling my coworkers I’m having a hard time,” or “I cried last night.” When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through. One unfortunate byproduct of the self-help movement is we’re the first generation to have feelings about our feelings. We tell ourselves things like, I feel sad, but I shouldn’t feel that; other people have it worse. We can — we should — stop at the first feeling. I feel sad. Let me go for five minutes to feel sad. Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger…. It’s absurd to think you shouldn’t feel grief right now.

As we all experience—or prepare to experience—great disturbance of spirit, perhaps this week’s gospel can remind us to allow ourselves time and space to grieve, to name our sorrows and losses and even to bring our accusations before God. Faith in these times does not mean stoically denying our human emotions, but trusting that God is present in and through all of it and does not need us to “get it together,” so as to offer only prayers of gratitude and polite petition.

“Out of the depths I cry to you,” the text of this week’s psalm calls out. Today and in the weeks to come, may we also call out to God and find strength not only in the faith that God can bring new life out of suffering and death, but that God is with us in our grief.