Unbound Grief

Two months ago, if you had told me that one of the hardest grocery items to find in a global pandemic would be yeast, I would have laughed at you. Milk and bread and eggs, sure. I probably wouldn’t have foreseen toilet paper, but it doesn’t surprise me under the circumstances. But yeast? Look, I’ve seen a lot of disaster movies and TV shows where the characters are scrambling to pile up supplies in the back of a truck to help them withstand whatever threat is descending upon them, and nobody has ever yelled, “make sure you grab all the yeast you can carry; we’re going to have to bake our way through this!”

But that’s the world we’re living in now, and so many people are breaking bread at home that flour and yeast are almost impossible to find, to the point that there are actually videos circulating on YouTube telling people how to harvest yeast out of the air at home. That, in turn, has led to a national obsession with sourdough starter, because that is essentially a way to farm your own yeast to make not only sourdough bread, but sourdough pretzels, muffins, waffles, pancakes, you name it.

So what is the obsession with baking in the midst of this pandemic, especially baking bread, and especially something as complex and time-consuming as sourdough bread? Well, that’s at least part of the point right there. A sourdough starter takes 5-7 days to really become usable, and they require regular attention to keep them alive. It’s almost like a pet: you have to feed it and give it water; it has to breathe; some people even give them names. And then you have to bake the bread on top of that, which takes more than a day, given all the steps, pauses for rising, etc. So bread-baking in general, and sourdough in particular, is perfect for quarantine life, because instead of being constantly on the run for work and school and life in general the way we usually are, we’re stuck in our houses most of the time, so it’s pretty easy to make bread right now, and with sourdough you don’t even need to go scavenging for yeast.

But homemade bread is almost the definition of comfort food. Even if you’ve never done it yourself, there’s almost a mythology that surrounds it. The smell of baking bread wafting through the house on a sunny spring day; it reaches you in an upstairs bedroom and beckons you downstairs. You follow it, slowly and then quickly down the stairs and into the kitchen. At the stove, someone is pulling it out of the oven, smiling deeply with their eyes closed as they lean over it and inhale the aroma bursting from the crusty brown bread in the pan they are holding.

Strangely, though relatively few of us have the time or even the inclination to bake homemade bread on a regular basis, it still somehow connotes normalcy: not because of the act of breadmaking itself, I think, but because it’s wrapped up in idealized notions of family and innocence and love and goodness that have been imprinted on us without our even realizing it. So in these times of anxiety and isolation and uncertainty, it makes perfect sense that so many people have turned to breadmaking as a strategy for bringing an embodied expression of goodness and love and beauty into the world with patience and intentionality.

And bread, of course, is inherently a relational food, a communal food; it is made to be shared. When we eat with someone else, especially if it a meal in which the relationship is significantly deepened or healed, we sometimes say “we broke bread together.” The bread stands in as an image for the whole meal, both the food and the sharing of community around it. When someone new moves into the neighborhood, many of us bake bread (or cookies or muffins) and take them to the newcomer to say, “welcome to the neighborhood;” welcome, in other words, into our shared community.

We do the same thing when we want to express love or affection or kindness to someone else, bringing the still-warm bread to the in a basket with a cloth over it and saying, “I baked you something.” And because of that, I think, bread is also deeply associated with mourning and grief. One of the universals of human life is the centrality of food in mourning customs, and particularly food that is shared communally, whether it is buttermilk biscuits in the Southern U.S., or Arval bread in the north of England, or colaci bread in Romania.

I say all this because I think the obsession with baking right now is also an expression of grieving right now in our society. Because there is much to grieve, starting with more than 60,000 people who have died in the United States and almost 250,000 worldwide, and those numbers are almost certainly an undercount. So we are collectively grieving that loss, along with so much more: the loss of jobs, with the income and healthcare coverage and even personal identity that they give us; the loss of in-person relationships with anyone except those who share our household; the loss of whatever dreams and expectations we had for ourselves or our loved ones in at least the near future, everything from proms and graduations, to once-in-a-lifetime vacations, to long-planned professional achievements, to a secure economic future.

We are grieving the loss, in short, of anything resembling “normal life,” even if normal life was difficult before all this. We’re even grieving the loss of our ability to grieve the way we want to, unable to come together around the death of a loved one for any reason the way we normally would: with large funerals and those gatherings of extended family and friends sharing piles of food, with hugs offered and hands held as expressions and experiences of love and comfort.

And so bread-baking is a lived metaphor, whether consciously or not, for what we long for and what we are missing right now. I t’s something, at least, that we can do, that is a tangible expression of love and support and community that can be shared in the very midst of grief; a “small, good thing” as Raymond Carver puts it in an extraordinary short story by the same name, in which a lonely baker and two bereaved parents form an unlikely but powerful community of shared grief over fresh-baked rolls.

To me, that’s what is so powerful about our Scripture lesson today, which is perhaps the most famous story of shared grief in the New Testament. That might seem a little strange, though, given that the story ends in resurrection, with Jesus calling Lazarus out of his tomb and death itself, and then telling his family to unbind him from the grave cloths wrapped around him and let him go. But I also think that’s the most important element of the story for us, particularly right now: the co-existence of grief and resurrection.

Because the temptation for Christians sometimes is to believe that since our faith is rooted in resurrection, we are exempt from grief. In fact, some Christians go so far as to suggest that grieving is a sign of a lack of Christian faith. So I want to say loudly and clearly today that is not only wrong, it is a direct contradiction of the Biblical witness. In this story, Jesus knows from the beginning that this illness will not be the end of Lazarus.

When he gets to the village several days after Lazarus has died, he finds Lazarus’ sisters deep in grief. Martha comes out of the house to meet him before he even gets there, and she is clearly in the anger stage of grief, with elements of bargaining as well: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” When he gets to the house, Mary greets him with similar hostility, surrounded by others who are weeping. And Jesus responds not by admonishing them for lack of faith, not by teaching them about how Christians should not grieve, but in an outburst of grief himself.

And it is a deep and powerful outburst; the English translation falls short of the power of original language: both his spirit and his body are in a turmoil of sorrow and even anger. And he responds that way despite knowing what he is about to do, despite knowing that he is about raise Lazarus from the dead. He responds that way, with the anger and sorrow of true grief because it’s not just about Lazarus, it’s about the trauma this has inflicted on Lazarus’ family and neighbors, the deep pain they are in. Lazarus’ resurrection will change that reaction, but it won’t erase it. In this moment between loss and resurrection, they are in profound grief, and Jesus goes right there with them before he does anything else, including raising Lazarus from the dead.

Because grief is fundamentally an expression of love: and Jesus loves Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus, so he shows them and us how to grieve right it the midst of certainty about the power of resurrection. Jesus himself demonstrates that faith in resurrection does not cancel out grief in loss, and the truly faithful thing to do is to recognize that and share the grief with others. We have to unbind grief itself and let it go, not in the sense of it departing, but in the sense of trying to bury it. Because unless the love that gave birth to it is gone, neither is grief.

But if the grief is not gone, then neither is the love that gave birth to it, either. And in sharing one we can and do share the other as we, too, find ourselves in the space between loss and resurrection, because grief is not a problem to be solved or a challenge to be overcome; it is a love to be expressed, which requires community. So one of the most powerful things we can do right now for one another is to come together in community and share each other’s loving grief and grieving love.

In fact, by coming together in the sacrament of Communion in a few minutes, we will be doing exactly that in spirit, and it is no coincidence that at the heart of Communion is the breaking and sharing of bread. So as we do so, remember that this is not just a “small good thing,” though that in itself has real power. We are not simply communing with one another, though that has real power, too. But through the Holy Spirit, in the breaking and sharing of bread, we are being joined together in community, in communion, with the One who has experienced and shared love and grief in the depths of his gut, in every corner of his heart, in the movement of God’s Spirit, in the power of God’s grace and glory.

So whatever grief you are carrying, whatever loss you are feeling, bring it with you to the table as you come. Taste, and smell, and see the bread before you as an embodiment of God’s love for you and for all of us in Jesus Christ, a love that is more than acquainted with grief. And as it fills you and nourishes you, consider how you can share that love with others, even and especially when you must remain physically distant from them. Because we are all hungry for love and community and support right now; and there is more than enough to go around for all of us.

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