Considering the fact that I’m a Christian, it may seem strange that the Jewish holy day of Tisha B’Av speaks to me so much. Tisha B’Av is all about mourning, and I think this day and its practices could teach Christians some needed lessons about grief.
Three years ago I got laid off from a job I’d held for 15 years. Two days after I was blindsided by this news, a Christian friend asked me a question that struck me as out of place: “What are you going to do now?” As if I already had a plan. As if 48 hours were enough to reconfigure a career. I’m sure I answered with something polite and hopeful – it’s what this guy was looking for, after all – but what I really wanted to respond was, “Cry my eyes out, watch too much TV, and probably drink too much wine.”
A lot of the questions and comments from my Christian friends in the days following my sudden layoff seemed to hit the wrong note. “God’s got something even better for you.” “God wanted you somewhere else.” “I can’t wait to see what God has for you in the next chapter of your life.”
Don’t get me wrong – these were lovely and mostly encouraging sentiments. But in some ways they were skipping an important part of the process of coping with sudden, unwelcome events like this: grief. I’d been blessed by a decade and a half in a ministry-oriented job that used my interests and talents, and losing that felt rotten. I needed to process my loss before hallelujah-ing my way into the next phase of God’s master plan for my life.
This fast-forward thinking is understandable from a people who have a sure and certain Hope, who know that God has secured a happy ending to our story. But I think we miss something rich and necessary when we bypass the process of grieving the good things we lose here in our broken world.
I see glimpses of that truth every year around this time when I watch my Jewish friends and coworkers prepare for Tisha B’Av, the holiday that marks catastrophic events in the history of the Jewish people, most notably the destruction of the first and second Jerusalem Temples in 586 B.C.E. and 70 C.E., respectively.
To mark these losses, every year on this day observant Jews fast for 25 hours, refrain from laughing and other happy activities, and spend a majority of the day in synagogue, where they read the books of Job and Lamentations, and recite prayers of lament. All because of what was lost. And all in the house of the God they still trust, the God they still cling to with each new challenge and tragedy.
I feel like their grief acknowledges that the Temples God gave them, places filled with His presence here on earth, were an amazing blessing. As such, there's a beautiful layer of gratitude in their grief. In their fasting, they are saying with their very bodies that this blessing is missed. And with their prayers they are inviting God into their pain.
We who love God, and know that He loves us, still live in a world of unemployment, hate, cancer, and war. For both Jews and Christians, grief can be a way to acknowledge to ourselves and to our God that this world we live in is broken, and we simply cannot wait until the Messiah comes and makes it right.