I sat at my desk this morning and cried over the death of a parishioner.
That doesn’t happen very often. It’s not that I do not care deeply for the people I pastor as rector of my little Episcopal church. I love them, all of them, although any honest pastor will admit that it is easier to love some than others. But the work of a pastor is loving within healthy boundaries, so you can see clearly in ways that you cannot when your heart is fully entangled with another’s. It’s not love like you love your children, or your parents, or your spouse, or even your friends. The Greeks probably had a special word for it: they seem to have had a special word for all the different forms of love, so they must surely have had a particular word for pastor-love.
Pastor-love is deeply rooted in faith in the Resurrection, because it is love that is offered so often in the midst of suffering and loss. It is love that accompanies to the gates of death. After a spate of funerals, people often ask me how I can bear to do this work, sitting regularly as I do at bedsides waiting for death and burying people I care about. I answer that it’s because I really, truly believe in the power of Resurrection. My love is paired with an absolute certainty that life is not ended, but changed, that those I love are now part of the great cloud of witnesses around the throne of God. This is not a rational belief, a carefully cultivated theology that explains away death and minimizes loss. It is, instead, an experience of trust in God welling up from within, which stands with me at the grave and says, “Alleluia!” even in the midst of grief. It is a gift from God, a blessing given, I can only assume, so that I can do the work God has called me to do. Pastor-love means I can love without being overwhelmed by grief.
So why am I crying for Mary this morning?
It’s not because i have any doubt about the power of Resurrection, or the slightest concern that Mary was not eagerly welcomed into God’s presence. Indeed, I smile when I think of Mary arriving at the gates of heaven, attired in rainbows, joyously greeting her beloved husband, and finally getting to ask Jesus, who she always loved, the same question with which she so often greeted me: “I’ve been reading my Bible, and I have a question: Why would God ask people to do so many terrible things?” I trust she has finally received an answer that truly satisfies her.
But even as I rejoice in the eternal life I am sure Mary is experiencing, my grief wells up as tears, and I realize that somehow, Mary slipped under and through those healthy boundaries, into something beyond pastor-love. Not in any inappropriate way: she never asked or expected of me anything other than my pastoral care and love for her, and I never offered anything else. Our relationship was always that of pastor and parishioner, nothing more, nothing less. And yet...
I am crying today because I was loved. It was evident in the way she would send me little notes, suggestions and ideas that she wanted to share, but gently and kindly, careful not to embarrass me in front of others. The way she would hold my hand, patting it with her free hand, and laugh gently at something I said as she left the sanctuary. It was in her warm welcome when I visited, and her thoughtful, insightful conversation about everything from the Bible to church attendance to the joy of watching the birds from her porch. I am crying because her last words to me, after I had come and read scripture and prayed and offered her communion for the last time, words important enough to be forced through even though every word required herculean effort, were “I love you.” Just to be sure I knew.
The tears are Mary’s last great gift to me — a gift of love that fulfills of the commandment Jesus gave his disciples on the night before he died, that they should love one another as he loved them. To be loved that way breaks open the heart in unexpected ways; it draws to the surface our best self, the one that can give of itself to others without being left empty, because it is renewed by the love we share with God.
This Easter, as we gather for Maundy Thursday and hear again Jesus' last words to his disciples, as we wait grief-stricken at the foot of the cross on Good Friday, and we rejoice with Mary Magdalene to greet him at his Resurrection on Easter, I’ll be thinking about my Mary, about the gift of love, and the way grief and love can mix together into something holy. I will wonder if that’s what the disciples felt, as they watched Jesus break bread and again when he appeared before them in that upper room, offering his pierced hands to their wondering examination. I will imagine their eyes filling with tears and their hearts overflowing with joy, simultaneously.
“As the Father as loved me, so I have loved you,” Jesus told them. “Now remain in my love.” Thank you, Mary, for the gift of love. May you, and all who love you, know the peace and joy that comes of being one with the source of that Love, until we meet again.