Beyond the definition of a commonwealth as a federation of states, it is also any group of persons united by some common interest. In the face of a global pandemic or senseless violence, those who are helpless onlookers are most certainly part of a commonwealth. As we join hands and hearts across continents and the continuum of life, we grieve in unison for each individual who is lost to us in death and for every person who survives and grieves.
When we are assailed by overwhelming loss, our sense of heart struggles with the “why” of our collective grief. We want answers when there are none. As media saturation inevitably seeps into every crevice of the details, often the word “mass” grabs our attention— infection of the masses, mass attack, mass destruction. And while “mass” may describe the scope of an event, there is a gaping emotional void when victims of unbridled contagion, random acts of personal and national terrorism, catastrophic weather events, and oppression of every kind are lumped together as part of an indeterminate “mass”.
For every person included as part of a media-described “mass”, there is a human being, whether alive or dead. When life ends because of inexplicable “mass” events of disease or disaster we are painfully reminded that each individual has a unique story, “We spend our years as a tale that is told” (Psalm 90:9 KJV). Grief defies every assumption of “mass” because above all else, grief is individual and personal. In response to the shared trauma of large-scale events, we are forced to react and feel beyond the sweeping generalities of “mass” as we grieve in unison the sacred loss of each human life.
We grieve as one when we hear a daughter describe the heartbreak of being able to do nothing more than look through a window because of restrictions imposed to curb the outbreak of a viral infection, unable to be with her mother while she is dying. With a heart shattered by disbelief and grief, we hear a distraught mother say through her uncontrollable tears, “I don’t know where my son is”, only later to learn that he died in a mass shooting. While it is impossible to ignore the tectonic social and moral change evident in life all around us—for better or for worse—with borderless illness and mass slayings come a certain aggregate confusion that echoes the ignorance, anger, frustration, and conflicted emotions of chaos. The psalmist David expressed his human fear, “For I hear the whispering of many— terror all around!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life” (Psalm 31:13 NRSV).
We grieve in unison when we consider the impact of sudden, unexpected loss on those who survive—not only family members, but friends, colleagues, neighbors, school friends, church communities, and on and on. The ripple effect of loss is exponential. For every person included as part of a “mass” there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands whose lives are unalterably changed by the cruel, untimely death of one they know and love.
When we look into the depths of an international health crisis, a planned assault on innocent human life, and every tragic death, we pause to reflect on how the love of grief informs our daily life beyond the immediate moment of shock and heartbreak. Would we forego the love we shared with the one now lost to us in death simply to avoid the pain of grief? No, surely no one would deny the joy and glory of love only to avoid the possibility of loss—it is simply unimaginable. If we take a step back for a moment, we see in our grief perhaps the most heartfelt expression of love beyond death. Grief comes from love. Grief springs from love. Grief arises from a surrendered, selfless love. Grief is the eternal connection of our love to the one now lost to us in death, “And, above everything else, be truly loving, for love is the golden chain of all the virtues” (Colossians 3:14 JBP).
Through our grief we honor the meaning and value of each life made for a specific purpose in the divine order of creation in the image of a loving, caring God. As one we pray that God will comfort those who grieve, “both low and high, rich and poor together” (Psalm 49:2 NRSV). We pray that God will give strength and courage to those whose hearts are broken. We pray that God will overcome the destructive power of a viral epidemic or willful brutality through God’s infinite goodness, mercy, and grace, “‘Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me’” (Isaiah 50:8-9 NRSV).
With renewed reverence for life and spiritual respect for the mystery of death, together— in unison, as one—we grieve each living, breathing soul, each father, mother, child, son, daughter, wife, husband, and every other relationship of spirit and bond that connects us one to another. We grieve as one in the presence of God, fortified by the strength and endurance of our faith, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13 NRSV).
In you, O Lord, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.
You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
You hate those who pay regard to worthless idols, but I trust in the Lord. I will exult and rejoice in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction; you have taken heed of my adversities, and have not delivered me into the hand of the enemy; you have set my feet in a broad place.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.
I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel. For I hear the whispering of many—terror all around!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.
But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors. Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love. Do not let me be put to shame, O Lord, for I call on you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go dumbfounded to Sheol. Let the lying lips be stilled that speak insolently against the righteous with pride and contempt.
O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear you, and accomplished for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of everyone! In the shelter of your presence you hide them from human plots; you hold them safe under your shelter from contentious tongues.
Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as a city under siege. I had said in my alarm, “I am driven far from your sight.” But you heard my supplications when I cried out to you for help.
Love the Lord, all you his saints. The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily. Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.