Gathering for dinner after a funeral can be so healing. That’s often the time when family members can let their hair down, exhale from all that they’ve been holding in, relax enough to hear and tell some of the more colorful stories and maybe the more touching stories about the person whom they have been grieving.
For some people there’s nothing quite like funeral food. They recognize it right away. The salads made with extra care, fried chicken or maybe brisket, apple or peach cobbler lovingly baked, and plenty of brownies. Sometimes, a Jello ring with fruit mixed in still shows up, a welcome treat reminiscent of childhood for some of us.
Words are gently shared. Laughter comes a little hardier. There are still some catches in the throat. Grief has its own timeline and, while it may have similarities for each of us, we are each on our own path. Whether it’s standing in small circles holding paper plates or sitting down to a meal at a table that seems at once too full with food to serve — and too empty with the absence of the one we have gathered to offer tribute — we have taken a step toward all our griefs to bear as we eat together.
We are most often grateful for the time to share, however briefly, with kith and kin. They are the people who bolster us, show us that distance doesn’t matter quite so much, and maybe leave us with longing for a reunion again beyond the edge of grief’s shadow.
John tells us about a funeral dinner that took a very different turn in the 12th chapter of his Gospel. Lazarus, who was Jesus’ good friend, had died following an illness. Jesus wasn’t able to get there in time, even though his sisters had hoped he might be able to prevent Lazarus’ death. Jesus went to the tomb, told the people to roll the stone away, and called Lazarus out – raising or resuscitating him from the dead.
The dinner they had planned for after the funeral turned into a thanksgiving meal for their brother having been brought back to life. It’s hard to imagine just how grateful they must have been. It was more than words could say for some of them.
Mary, overcome with gladness, but sensing something else was awry, broke open a very expensive jar of perfume for anointing the dead, poured it over Jesus’ feet, then let her hair down and began to wash his feet. It must have been a very intimate and loving gesture that was overflowing with gratitude, but was also foreboding, coming less than a week before Jesus’ own death.
Mary looks back with gratitude as Jesus looks forward anticipating what is to come. He is able to see what the others cannot see, that his death will come in order to give life in a whole new way.
Judas, who is also there for dinner, can’t see beyond anything other than the money he could’ve lined his own pockets with if Mary had just given him the jar to sell instead. With his eye on the missed coins, he misses the implications of Mary’s gift and what Jesus will offer them.
Jesus shows us grief’s path that he will accompany us on. It is a path that leads to death, through death, and beyond death. It points us toward a banquet table where one day we will all be gathered, find solace to comfort us, and be filled with good food; a place where distances don’t matter so much, where we’ll laugh with good stories to tell, and our grief will be turned to gratitude.
Lander Bethel is the minister of Grand Avenue Presbyterian Church in Sherman and First Presbyterian Church in Denison. He earned a doctoral degree in ministry from McCormick Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Genna, live in Sherman. They have three sons.