This Lent I’ve been reading Helen Macdonald’s wonderful new book—part memoir, part nature–essay—H is for Hawk. Helen Macdonald is a writer and a scholar of the history of science at Cambridge in England. In H is for Hawk she tells a double story—one strand recounts her grief at the sudden death of her father, the other her deepening relationship with a female goshawk named Mabel. It’s a deeply engaging book, and it lets you look into a process of loss, recovery and personal transformation that is both surprising and undeniably true.
Here is how Helen Macdonald describes the unlikely connection between knowing a wild animal and surviving a human loss:
I repeatedly dreamed of goshawks after my father died and some unconscious compulsion told me that training a goshawk was necessary. You can’t tame grief, but you can tame hawks. And the goshawk, as I explain in the book, wasn’t just a deep distraction. It was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self–possessed and free from human emotions. I didn’t want to be me anymore. I wanted to be something like a hawk: fierce, living entirely in the present and untouched by loss.—[Helen Macdonald, Salon interview, March 9, 2015]
“Fierce, living entirely in the present and untouched by loss”—those words pretty well sum up our fantasies of human independence. Yet tonight, as we gather in the wake of the cross, we experience ourselves as the antitheses of those wishes. We are, if anything, humanly dependent. When we grieve, we live not in the present but in the remembered dream of the past. We are anything but fierce. We are overwhelmed by loss.
The book of Job is the biblical text that gives the fullest expression to the shared human experience of grief and loss. At one point in his sorrow and pain, Job says this to God:
A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last. Since their days are determined, and the number of their months is known to you, and you have appointed the bounds that they cannot pass, look away from them, and desist, that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days. [Job 14:1–2; 5–6]
“Look away from them,” Job demands. Since our life is already short and we cannot do anything to extend the days you have allotted us, perhaps it would be just as well if you left us alone. This sounds blasphemous. We are always tempted to upbraid Job for his impiety. But we cannot blame him for his truth. Who but a deeply faithful person could talk to God so rudely?
One of the drawbacks of our polite and learned style of Christianity is our tendency to make our religion too intellectual. Because we value ideas, we make Jesus into more of a teacher than he probably was. Those who followed him came and stayed because they knew him as their healer and friend. It was his teaching and preaching that got Jesus into trouble with the Romans. It was his healing and compassion that built the community that gathered around him in life and continued after his death.
Tonight we—who are Jesus’s companions as much as his Galilean friends were—we gather to move with Jesus to the tomb in the reality of his death. We acknowledge that we have lost not a philosopher but a brother, not a guru but a friend. But before we ask what the death of Jesus means for us, we have to ask what it means for me. When we lose someone close and important to us, we experience the loss as personal and private. As Helen Macdonald reminds us, “Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.” As George Herbert asks in his great poem “The Sacrifice”, “Was ever grief like mine?” Jesus is speaking in this poem, but his question could be posed by each of us. “Was ever grief like mine?”
In the evening after the events of Friday afternoon, each of us must come to terms with Jesus’s question. “Was ever grief like mine?” Our bereavement drives us apart. Yet clearly our own loneliness cannot be our final destination. Again, my guide here is Helen Macdonald:
What happens to the mind after bereavement makes no sense until later… What I should have realised, too… is that what the mind does after losing one’s father isn’t just to pick new fathers from the world, but pick new selves to love them with.
Tonight, as we move with Jesus to the tomb, we move more deeply into the experience of bereavement, and the loss of Jesus helps us know and claim what it is to lose those others in our lives—parents, spouses, partners, friends, and God help us, even children. “Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.” You don’t really know what it means to lose somebody until you experience the loneliness yourself. We may all gather in the same physical space, but in relation to the death of Jesus, we are each of us alone.
And only in that loneliness can we begin to imagine a new and deeper form of human connection. As we move through our losses we begin to reach out to “pick new fathers from the world” and “pick new selves to love them with”. Because we know our own losses, we can begin to feel the pain of others. Because we have been changed by grief, we can engage each other and the world in new and empathic ways. What you know after you lose someone close to you is that you emerge from grief a different person than you entered it. Before Jesus died, his companions were a pretty sorry bunch of customers. After Easter they changed the world. They were made into new people who could love and serve others not in spite of but because of their loss.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It is enough tonight to rest, with Jesus, where he lies. As we sit in our loneliness, let us remember what it is about Jesus we will miss the most. Again, from Helen Macdonald:
We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all of the lives we have lost. [Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk]
Jesus has died, just as many we love have died. Jesus has died, just as one day we will die. We cannot truly live with ourselves and others until we take this in. We cannot become the people God is making us into unless we let down our guards and accept that life is precious precisely because it is so fragile. Acknowledging our vulnerability can drive us into isolation, or it can bind us together in new and life–giving ways. If we let it, our time tonight alone, with Jesus, and each other will do God’s work within us to heal and remake us and those we have lost.
The last word belongs to Job:
A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last. Since their days are determined, and the number of their months is known to you, and you have appointed the bounds that they cannot pass, look away from them, and desist, that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days. [Job 14:1–2; 5–6] Amen.