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Grief, Grace, and an Empty Grave

April 18, 2022 | Dr. Cody Whittington

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The women who had come with him [Jesus] from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56 Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment. But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen (Luke 23:55-24:5).

The Rugged Terrain of Grief

As a pastor, I have the complex privilege of being with people in some of their darkest moments. In such times the role of pastoral care, as Eugene Peterson puts it, becomes “an assignment to share experiences of suffering.”1 The last few years have provided numerous occasions for being present with people in the depths of sorrow. Between COVID-19, the mental health crisis, loneliness, ethnic and racial divisions, social upheaval, the economic challenges, and the pervasiveness of natural disasters, sorrow has made itself comfortable in our homes. In 2020, a New York Times author asked hundreds of people to summarize the 2020 year in six words or less. One participant pointedly wrote, “Covid, Floyd, fires; I can’t breathe.”2 In each situation, the struggle for life in the face of suffering feels like suffocating, and in some way, it has affected you, hasn’t it?

If we look closely, the women on their way to the tomb are not only the first heralds of the good news but also the guides to resurrection-hope in the rugged terrain of grief. How might the Resurrection story help move us from the place of despair to the reality of life-giving grace found in Christ, the Risen Lord?

Luke doesn’t skip straight to the empty tomb and the dazzling angelic encounter in his Resurrection account. Instead, he requires us to sit with them on Saturday, experiencing the heartbreak and horror of the crucifixion. Then, we must walk with them to the tomb. I wonder if the women were eager to get the burial process over with as they went to the grave “at early dawn,”3 or perhaps better rendered, “the extreme point of earliness.” Nonetheless, Luke is in no hurry, even if the women might be.

It is almost like Luke wants us to become mourners with the women. Seemingly, we don’t get the beauty and blessedness of Resurrection morning without first being “those who mourn” (Matt 5:4). I have come to believe that we can miss the comforting presence of God if we avoid our grief by not going to the tomb. Considering the Beatitudes and Jesus’s ministry, mourning emerges as an avenue to encountering the restoring presence of God. I love that this story doesn’t invalidate, ignore, or evade grief; it assumes it is part of the old creation that groans, aching for redemption, restoration, and resurrection. In fact, coming to faith in Jesus involves acknowledging that things are not well in the world or within ourselves and trusting him to set it all right.

Luke’s story is an invitation by the Spirit to recognize the sorrow and walk with it for a time while aimed at hope. Mourning is part of the journey to comfort, whether we mourn our sin, the world’s condition, or both. We must grieve with these women. As Francis Weller beautifully puts it, “Grief work is not passive; it implies an ongoing practice of deepening, attending, and listening. It is an act of devotion, rooted in love and compassion.”4 Notice, the women are practicing in that they go to the tomb multiple times; they attend by taking the time to prepare the spices, and they grieve precisely because of their love and devotion to Jesus.

Engaging the Grief

I’ve been reflecting upon my own life and experiences of loss, wondering if I have willingly engaged in the suffering I have experienced in the unexpected loss of a brother and my mother. If I’m honest, I think I tend to confuse living with the loss with engaging the grief. The idea of sitting quietly on Saturday and walking to the tomb multiple times is not attractive to me. I would rather get back to the daily grind and distracted living.

Compared to other cultures, our Western culture struggles to engage suffering and the subsequent grief. Perhaps this is because we have an abundance of resources that can, for a time, keep suffering at a distance or numb our emotional senses even to process the sorrow. However, the dark side of this abundance is the absence of a deep soul willing to walk with these women to the grave.

So, what did the women find as they reached the source of the sorrow? An empty tomb that immediately became filled with questions and confusion. For a minute there, the well of heartache went further down than they initially thought. They lost Jesus even more profoundly than they had two days before. Sometimes sorrow feels like this, doesn’t it? Once you believe you have scaled the mountain, you arrive only to see another peak. But, precisely at the moment of grief’s collision with confusion, the good news is found like a buried treasure.

The messengers’ first word is a probing question, “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” Being messengers means that the words are not their own. I love how God often initiates encounters with questions. He is indeed a good Counselor (cf. John 14:15-17). The question serves as a hopeful turn to the statement, “He is not here, but has risen.”

How might this relate to us as we approach Easter?

Let’s not skip ahead to the empty tomb to the neglect of the arduous but important work of grief. I believe Luke gives us two essential principles for engaging our grief if we look closely. First, the women stayed together. There is time and space for solitude as we grieve but being with a few people with whom you can share your suffering is essential. Second, as the story continues, the women remember the teachings of Jesus. The messengers used the empty tomb and subsequent perplexity to remind them that Jesus had said this would happen. The women “remembered his words” (Luke 24:8).

The two practical steps of togetherness and anchoring in the teachings of Jesus serve as a helpful starting point for those who are ready to take the walk but struggle with how to begin. Let’s allow the grief to surface and then enter into it knowing that love, compassion, and the grace of God are waiting for you.

Grieve with Hope

Whereas the women walking to the tomb had no clue what was ahead, we have the reader’s privilege of knowing how it ends. The story invites us to grieve while aiming at the hope found in the resurrection of Jesus. In writing to those facing grief, the apostle Paul tells them to mourn but to do so in light of the resurrection: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died” (1 Thess 4:13-14).

Luke helps us see that grief is rooted in the truth that things are not the way they ought to be in the world, and we know it. The resurrection, however, reminds us that grief is real and welcomed, but it doesn’t get the last word.

We can grieve with hope because “he has risen.”

1 Eugene Peterson, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, (Atlanta: John Knox, 1980), 114.

2 Rachel L. Harris and Lisa Tarchak, “Showers and Pants are So 2019,” New York Times, September 21, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/21/opinion/coronavirus-six-word-memoirs.html.

3 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke, ed. D. A. Carson, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Apollos, 2015), 708.

4 Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2015), 8.

Dr. Cody Whittington

Yellowstone Fellow

Cody Whittington serves as the Lead Pastor for The Table Community, a highly relational and non-traditional church in Belgrade, Mont. Cody has eleven […]

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