Funerals are those strange moments when we acknowledge our grief but try to cling to hope. Sometimes that hope is concrete and specific, but often it’s vague and theologically misplaced. “She was really suffering near the end, but she’s in a better place now,” we might say to one another without really understanding what we mean. As a funeral preacher, I’m still learning the art of embracing both the pain and the joy in order to convey a more substantial message of hope despite grief. I’m learning to trust that by confronting the depth of our loss—even to some extent the unpleasantness of broken relationships, missed opportunities, and lost dreams—I help the congregation (especially the family) to trust that God’s promise of new life is real. It always feels a little risky, but I think it gives the family something more than an abstract and platitudinous message of hope to hold on to.
On Sunday, as we celebrate the last Sunday before the journey of Lent begins, we will read about Jesus’ transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9). This is the moment when Jesus takes his most inner circle of disciples—Peter, James, and John—up on a mountain to pray. While they are there, the disciples witness the glory of Jesus’ divinity shining through as his clothes become a dazzling white. The great figures of the Hebrew tradition—Moses and Elijah—are seen flanking Jesus. A voice from heaven confirms Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved son. And, right in the middle of it all, Peter asks whether he should build three booths or tents—one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah—because “it is good for us to be here.” Silly Peter. Soon, of course, the vision fades, and the disciples join Jesus on the journey back down the mountain, and Jesus offers one last word on the matter: “Don’t tell anyone about what you have seen until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”
Like building blocks, moments like this one with Jesus must have been a source of comfort and confirmation as the disciples tried to make sense of the passion, death, and resurrection of their Lord. Some of those building blocks were more substantial than others—like the transfiguration or the raising of Lazarus or the stilling of the storm. Putting them all together, the disciples found enough substrate for faith in order to cling to Jesus’ promise of resurrection even in those early days when none of this was familiar enough to be certain of. Jesus’ command to the disciples, “Don’t tell anyone about this until I’ve risen from the dead,” is another way of saying, “Hang onto this moment because you’ll need it during the difficult days ahead.” And Peter’s desire to build three booths is, perhaps, an unconscious attempt to avoid the painful road to Jerusalem and Calvary that lay ahead.
As twenty-first century Christians, we hang on to the Paschal mystery as something that gives us hope in difficult days. We have had two millennia to understand that the resurrection of Jesus is confirmation that God’s love for us is greater than death and that God invites us, through his son, to participate in that resurrection. We’ve heard that story for two thousand years. But sometimes we still need something to hold on to when things get tough.
What is your source of comfort when death and grief and fear crowd in? Is it the empty tomb? Is it the transfiguration mount? If you’re like me, those passages in scripture are important building blocks, but sometimes I need to see and feel resurrection in my own life and not just receive it from so long ago. Yes, as Jesus said to Thomas, blessed are those who have not seen at yet believe. And, no, I haven’t seen quite like those disciples did in that Upper Room. But I have seen resurrection. I have seen moments of hope in hopelessness. I have seen paths destined for destruction be reversed in ways that I attribute to God’s resurrecting power. And I hold on to these so that the bigger hope might stay real to me even in tough moments.