Finding Christ’s love in times of grief

I woke up one morning tired of the noise of my usual routine: wake up, crawl out of bed, turn off my alarm and press play on my favorite podcast — drowning out the silence as soon as possible. I was home alone, and I found myself savoring the quiet that the morning offered me. The stillness stood in contrast to the fullness of life lately: starting a new job, visiting family, planning a wedding, attempting to figure out the next steps in my career. Admittedly, the busyness of this phase of life has made it difficult to take time to seek God in the stillness. But on this particular morning, as I settled by the window to journal, I began to think about the heart of Christ, about his love for us. Unbidden, I thought of the story of Mary Magdalene at Christ’s empty tomb.

Jesus’ strange questions

Why did this story come to mind when I considered the love of the savior, the nature of his heart? Curious, I turned to John chapter 20, which tells the story of the empty tomb and Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene. In this account, we are told that she visited the tomb on her own in the early morning. She saw that the stone had been rolled away, but that the savior’s body was no longer present there. She ran to tell Peter what had happened; when he and the other disciples saw the tomb, they believed that Christ’s body had been taken. The disciples returned home, but Mary Magdalene stayed at the tomb and began to weep.

Of all the Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection, St. John’s is perhaps the easiest for me to connect with. In it, we see that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone to mourn the savior in the place where she knew his body would be found. When she realized that he was gone, she stayed there, baffled by his disappearance, and in deep grief. When she turned to find Jesus standing near her, accompanied by angels, she did not even recognize him. She believed him to be the gardener.

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Jesus’ first questions to Mary Magdalene in this passage are significant. In verse 15, he asks her, “why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” (Jn 20:15). For Jesus, there should have been no reason to ask her either question — he would already have known. Not only had he just heard her telling the angels the answers to these questions, but he also knew her heart. Yet he asked, waiting to reveal his true identity until she had a chance to speak about the reason for her grief, to name the person she was grieving, to wrestle with the magnitude of both losses: first of his life, then of his physical presence in the tomb.

Waiting amid the silence

In my own grief, in the losses I have faced, I have searched for God in numerous places and numerous ways. I have mourned loved ones and the void they left behind. I have searched for the missing people in my life, asking and even begging God to justify their absence, to tell me that there was some greater plan, to lay it all out before me so that I can move forward in acceptance. My inability to comprehend God’s will alongside the reality of suffering can feel defeating. For so long, I took his lack of answers to mean that he wasn’t listening. But in reading St. John’s account of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Christ, I began to realize that the silence I perceived wasn’t a test that God was forcing on me to compel a little more patience, a little more faith. The quiet that he offered was actually a form of grace.

Jesus didn’t ask Mary Magdalene why she was weeping and who she was looking for because he didn’t know how she would respond. He asked because he was offering her a way to bring her deepest griefs to him. Jesus knew the extent of her suffering; he could have bypassed the questions and revealed himself immediately. In an instant, he could have taken away her grief — yet he allowed her to feel and express it. In doing so he stepped into it alongside her, in the same way that he mourned the death of Lazarus with his family before restoring his life (Jn 11). Not knowing who was standing there with her, Mary Magdalene undoubtedly felt as though God were distant, perhaps even departed from her. Yet the savior was closer to her than she could imagine, standing before her, as present as he always had been.

When we face grief, it is easy to expect ourselves to move on quickly. We judge ourselves for holding on; we wonder why we feel the weight of loss even years after it occurs. But Christ’s message to us in our grief is gentler than the judgments we place on ourselves. He joins us at the graveside, at the funeral, in our darkest, most desolate moments. He doesn’t demand that we jump up at the sight of him, all our wounds immediately healed and our turmoil gone. He steps into our grief, loss, suffering, and anger and experiences it with us. He approaches us just as he approached Mary Magdalene, asking us why we are weeping and who we are looking for. His love for us, in our most utterly human moments, is patient and kind. He mourns with us, without the expectation that we should pull it together immediately in his presence.

Healing after loss

Suffering is a mystery to me, one that I have grappled with as I have witnessed illness and experienced loss. Like Mary Magdalene, I find myself alone at the tomb, at Mass, in prayer, wondering what I will do to bear the weight of loving and losing people. I ask where Christ can be found in all of it. I catch my breath when I turn and see him there, no longer suffering but made whole by the Father’s love. It is this resurrected Christ who reaches out to us, empathizing with our wounds, healing our hearts and, ultimately, sending us out to share news of his mercy with others.

In our solitude, our suffering, our silence, Christ appears to us. When we seek him, he reveals himself to us. He announces the mystery of his love, his sacrifice and his faithfulness to us; he displays his grace for those of us who grieve. He reminds us that we have a vital role to play in his Church. May we learn to embody Mary Magdalene’s insistent dependence on Christ, her willingness to seek and find him in solitude and suffering, her openness to being healed by his love. John tells us that “Mary of Magdala went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord,’ and what he told her” (20:18). May we go and do likewise.

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