There is a grief deeper than words, a swirling current, sweeping a heart in relentless crashing tide. Grief lurks, shocking companion in the loss of a loved one, slinks from the shadows when we stumble upon a situation that we cannot comprehend, or change. Never sought out, it hunts each of us down sooner or later.
In Matthew 14:13, Jesus learns that his cousin, John the Baptist, is dead by the cruel hand of Herod, who ordered John be-headed at the flippant request of an offended queen. “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.”
What intrigues me most is what is not said: the space between the punctuation mark and the beginning of the next sentence, between “…himself.” and “But…” No one was there, so no one can know the experience of Christ in that isolated place.
I do know that grief has a tendency to chase us away to precipice paths with room for only one. Fully God, yet fully human, the “man of many sorrows” submitted himself to this human trail of grief. What did Jesus feel during that brief respite from the crowds? As God of the Universe, was He momentarily stunned by the cruelty of His own creation?
Grief haunts me in the year and a half since my beloved dad, one of my closest friends, died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 64. The textbook stages of grief, so objective and matter-of-fact in books and articles, tread upon my soul.
But another mysterious experience of grief somehow intertwines, and perhaps illuminates, this present journey.
In 2002, I volunteered for three weeks in the Nairobi Mother Teresa Home for Abandoned Children. Just one year prior, my husband and I claimed our precious son from one of its cribs and fell head over heels in love. Returning to the orphanage, hearing the echo of babies’ cries in the same under-staffed ward that was his home for the first 14 months of his life, seeing children sick and suffering as he once was when he nearly lost his life to tuberculosis, undid me.
I returned home, overwhelmed with experiential insight into my son’s suffering and that of the babies I had to leave behind. As I held him close, I could not integrate my experience half a world away with our seemingly safe and plentiful American life. And yet gazing into his luminous brown eyes would never let me forget.
I plunged into deeper internal turmoil a couple months after my return when I learned from a friend still in Nairobi that measles swept through the baby ward, killing some of the healthiest babies. She didn’t tell me in the email how many perished.
Grief overflowed into creating art; representations emerged on paper of 7 babies leaving this world for another. After I finished the piece, I learned from my friend that 7 babies died. In the perspective of eternity, the babies were snatched away from an abandoned existence on this earth to unimaginable love as they returned to their Creator. But as I reflect on the experience of creating this piece that so unexpectedly became an accurate memorial, I wonder if God simply wanted me to know that He also weeps over the cruelty of their short, unjust experience here.
Somehow I imagine that maybe this is what happened in Matthew 14:13. I dare not presume to comprehend the God of the Universe, and yet in my mind’s eye, I see tears in the unsaid. Perhaps, like the moment outside Lazarus’s tomb, when Jesus, knowing he was about to raise his friend from the dead, “wept.” (John 11:35)
Jesus, God With Us, walking hand-in-hand with grief. Returning to the crowds He loves so dearly, but pausing first to weep with us.