It was a cold February at Christ of the Desert monastery, high in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Behind the chapel, author William Bryant Logan noticed an open grave, the disturbed red soil waiting in a tall mound beside it.
“Has a brother died?” he asked a monk.
“No,” the monk answered, “but we cannot dig in winter, so we opened this grave ahead of time, just in case.”
To many of us, an open grave is unnerving, the thought of soil disturbed and waiting entirely unwelcome. “An open grave is an open mouth,” writes Logan. “It exhales all the suggestion of the dark.”(1) In the Western world in particular, we have a complicated relationship with death, dismissing as much of it as we can manage from sight, mind, and society. An open grave is a gaping wound we prefer to turn our eyes away from.
Christian theologian J. Todd Billings notes something similar about the presence of lament at the grave. Lament is an expression of grief, a practice—maybe even a word—that has fallen out of use in modern times, a discipline often avoided, even buried in Christian liturgies. “[I]n a growing trend,” writes Billings, “many funerals completely avoid the language of dying and death as well as the appearance of the dead body—turning it all into a one-sided ‘celebration’ of the life of the one who has died.”(1) Such language might be fitting for certain worldviews, particularly those worldviews where death remains an enemy that puts an end to the life we are celebrating. But the biblical paradox about death attends to far more of the human experience.
The Christian worldview affords the hopeful (and far more multivalent) language of celebration to be sure—Christ has indeed conquered death—but likewise, we are afforded the equally hopeful language of lament. We are given permission to groan as mortals who do not yet taste the fullness of the victory Christ has won, as creatures who confess with their Creator that death is an enemy of God. Where we fail to face this fuller vision of our own mortality, writes Billings, “we attend to one side of the biblical paradox about death, forgetting that even the death of a very elderly person is not ‘altogether sweet and beautiful’… [At the grave of Lazarus], Jesus still wept—even for one who would be raised again. And so should we.”(2)
For Billings, the signs of death’s current reign and the dire need for the language of lament are not the mere theological abstractions of a theology professor. In a book he never fathomed he would write at the midpoint of his life, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ, his need for the language of lament is voiced in personal terms. It is equally clear that lament itself is a gift of the church to the world.
In one section, Billings describes his own congregation, with its array of people and stages of life, a church that on a regular basis baptizes people into new life and holds funerals marking death. This collective, human journey struck him as he led a Sunday school class shortly after his diagnosis. “In this room are cancer survivors who have gone through chemo; and there are others who have lost spouses and other loved ones to cancer and other disease and tragedy. The congregation is the only place in Western culture where we develop relationships, celebrate our faith and life together, and also extend those same relationships all the way through death and dying… That is a gift of the church. I would go so far as to say that a top recommended question from me for ‘church shoppers’ might be this: who would you like to bury you?”(3)
For any death-denying culture, the church sits as a striking counterpoint, empowered by the crucified Jesus to tell a vastly different story. But the whole story needs to be told. The Bible’s “laments, petitions, and praises—have been a staple of Christian worship for centuries. They, along with the sacraments of Christ’s dying and new life, have incorporated death into the story of Christian worship.”(4) The Christian imagination is not one that has to bury its head in the sand, taking its cues from our culture’s qualms about death. To lament is not to undermine that we are a people who live in hope. On the contrary, it is a gift of God for the people of God, who discover in the vicarious humanity of the crucified Lord both a more profound rejoicing and a more honest lament. Whereas other worldviews have no basis for the practice of lamentation (to whom would we lament?), for the Christian it is a part of the journey, a testimony to our identity in Christ. “To mourn and to protest is to testify that the gifts of creation are truly wondrous,” writes Billings, “that the communion with God and others that we taste in Christ is truly the way things are supposed to be—and thus alienation and death are not truly ‘natural’ but enemies of God and his kingdom.”(5)
For days marked by loss, it is a weighty thought, full of God’s care for multifaceted journeys: for crossings from birth to death, for journeys marked by both celebration and suffering, for moments of thirst and for places of provision. Because of Christ, the Christian is given a language and a leader through all of it: beside still waters, through dark valleys and green pastures to a table prepared in the presence of enemies, with tears to shed at the tomb of a friend and suffering carried on a personal cross. There are no abstractions here. The Christian story is mercifully not one that asks us to deny the dark and painful realities of life. Death is not pushed away in denial, but incorporated into God’s redemptive story, held by a storyteller who knows every part of the journey to resurrection, even the open grave.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) William Bryant Logan, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), 48.
(2) J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker,2015), 108.
(3) Ibid., 101.
(4) Ibid., 109.
(5) Ibid., 100.