Cabinet of Colloquial Curiosities, V: Dolorifuge

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March 28, 2021

Cabinet of Colloquial Curiosities, V: Dolorifuge

Passage: John 11:28–57; John 12:12–19

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.

Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?” Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
the King of Israel!”
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”

So what’s the shortest sentence in the English language? There’s some controversy about this between the only two obvious candidates. Personally, I think the shortest sentence in the English language is “Go!” Others insist that a proper English sentence must have a subject, so the shortest sentence in the English language is “I am,” or maybe “I do.” I respond that a verb in the imperative mood implies a subject, so that when we say “Go!” we are really saying “You go!”, but either way—“Go!” or “I am”—English can be a remarkably efficient language.

John 11:35 comes close. It is the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept”; two words, nine letters. It wasn’t St. John himself, of course, who set this sentence apart from the larger story. Chapter and verse references in the Bible didn’t come along until the sixteenth century.

But Christendom has long admired the shrewdness of the first guy to put all those chapter and verse references into the Bible and to give these two words, these nine letters, their very own discreet verse. That ancient Bible scholar understood that those two words—“Jesus wept”—give us a vivid snapshot of who Jesus is in his distilled essence.

John tells us that when Jesus confronted the brutal fact of his friend Lazarus’ apparently irreversible deadness, he weeps. And then John piles up the verbiage to hammer home his humble homily. “Jesus wept,” John tells us. “Jesus was greatly disturbed and deeply moved.” Some English translators say it really should read “Jesus was angry.” Jesus is mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore.” Jesus hates death. Death, he says, is demonic. Death is the Devil’s.

This Gospel means to tell us that a sturdy belief in the resurrection of the dead does not forestall our tears. These two words, these nine letters, grant us permission to give physical, public, saline expression to our sadness. They almost command us so to do.

And now once again, I’m going to reach into my Cabinet of Colloquial Curiosities and snatch out another eccentric word. Like the others, this one is both obsolete and unpronounceable: Dolorifuge. It’s obsolete and unpronounceable, but it is not inscrutable. We can take it apart and learn what it means. It is composed of two Latin words: dolor, which of course is ‘sadness’; and fuge, from the verb fugere, which means ‘to flee’, as in ‘centrifuge’: ‘to flee from the center;’ or ‘refuge’, which is something you flee back to; or ‘refugee’, someone who flees. A Dolorifuge is anything that makes your fell foreboding flee far from you.

This is a timely word for us on Palm Sunday because during Holy Week, many of us will want to walk with Jesus down his Via Dolorosa, his Sorrowful Way. A bunch of you have literally walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, with its 14 stations of dolor, or maybe in a Roman Catholic cathedral.

So a Dolorifuge is anything that makes your dolor, your sadness, fly away. The first of all dolorifuges is just to admit and express our sadness, because Lord knows we’ve all got plenty to be sad about. Recently there was wonderful article in The Times about disenfranchised grief. Yeah I didn’t know what that was either till I read this article. Disenfranchised grief is when you don’t feel you have the right be sad about small losses.

Throughout this pandemic, when you ask people what they’ve lost in the past year, people like us are likely to answer, “I can’t complain,” or “I’m one of the lucky ones,” or “I know I should count my blessings.” I’ve said those kinds of things a hundred times myself.

What have we lost: proms, baseball, graduations, weddings, funerals, vacations, opera, hugging our grandchildren? But what is that compared to those who have lost their lives or their loved ones or their health or their jobs? Not a lot. But here’s the thing: it’s not a competition. We should acknowledge all that we have lost. One woman said, “What is life if not a collection of small joys?” Yes? The gym, the cinema, the show, the restaurants, the dinners with friends. “Taken together, maybe our loss is not so small after all.”

It’s been a year, and I still can’t get used to Blursday. I used to write my sermons on Saturday, but now we record on Saturday so I have to write them on Friday, and every Friday night after I write my sermon I watch TV with my wife, and every Friday night I turn to her and say, “How come Saturday Night Live isn’t on?” And she looks at me like I’m crazy, because I am, and she says, “Because it’s Saturday Night Live, not Friday Night Live.”

Then on Saturday I go to church to record the worship service and I’m watching TV on Saturday night and I ask her “How come 60 Minutes isn’t on?” She just gives up. I still do this.

A young woman named Victoria broke the school record in the triple jump as a junior at Pomona College, and she was hoping to win a national title as a senior, but the track and field season never happened.

“There was no concrete way to mourn a lost track season,” she says. “Even that sentence sounds stupid now. But it was such a big part of who I was, of who I am. We had all these big dreams.”">[1] But it’s not a competition. We’re not competing in the Grief Olympics or in the Super Bowl of Dolor.

A broken heart itself is a dolorifuge. Like the broken heart of Jesus at Lazarus’ grave. Do we get our hearts broken by the things that break the heart of God? Jesus got his heart broken by the things that break the heart of God. He hated death with a vengeance and went to war with it, at Lazarus’ tomb and a week later at his own.

Those 18 people killed in Atlanta and Boulder last week: it is so wrenching. Teri Leiker, that autistic clerk at King Soopers who’d been bagging groceries cheerfully for 30 years. Her autistic boyfriend worked there too, and he was there; he survived. Where will he find another Teri?

Lynn Murray died in Boulder too. Her disconsolate husband said, “I want her to be remembered as just this amazing, amazing comet spending 62 years flying across the sky. Our tomorrows are forever filled with an unimaginable sorrow.”">[2]

I like to think that my heart is broken by the things that break the heart of God, but is it? There was a disturbing article in The Washington Post last week entitled “Americans Are Stubbornly Unmoved by Death.”">[3] We’re moved enough to keep a moment of silence and to set up little flower and teddy bear and candle shrines outside the place where they died, but not moved enough to change our behavior. Our guns and our masklessness are more important to us than our neighbors.

Sandy Hook Elementary School is 30 miles up the road from Greenwich, Connecticut. When 20 children died there in 2012, everybody in Connecticut said, “If our laws don’t change now, they never will.” And they didn’t. Will they ever? Are our hearts truly, genuinely, wrenchingly broken by the things that break the heart of God? One dolorifuge is to do something meaningful with your dolor so that the dolor never happens again to someone else.

Speaking of which, I recently heard about a 41-year-old Philadelphia woman named Bobbie Floyd. Bobbie and her husband have two sons, 8 and 13, but often talked about becoming foster parents. Then Bobbie’s husband died young in a motorcycle accident, and Bobbie thought the dream of fostering had died with him.

Then on the second anniversary of her husband’s death, a social worker called and said, “We have two sisters, 7 and 11, who need a home. Will you take them?” Bobbie said, “What the heck; I’ll take them.” But when the kids showed up on her doorstep, there were three children instead of the two sisters she’d agreed to. The sisters had a nine-year-old brother who also needed a home. Bobbie and her biological sons took all three.

A year later, it turns out that these three foster kids have three more siblings. At least one of these kids had been through nine other foster homes by the age of 17. She said yes again. So now she is the mother of eight children—the single mother, of eight children—two biological and six foster, in the process of adoption—ages 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, and 17.

Bobbie does not live in a mansion. She says, “We just started throwing up lofts and bunk beds. We’re a well-oiled machine. In the kitchen we’re sliding and grooving, gliding in and out.”

A family of nine. The initial call about those two sisters, you see, came on the second anniversary of her husband’s death. Ms. Floyd says “I just felt that he was telling me, ‘Here, take these kids. Get busy. Stop crying.’ “Now,” she says, “I have no time to cry, so I just laugh and play and yell all day. Then I wake up and do it again.”">[4] Six extra kids to love is about the best dolorifuge I’ve ever heard of.

Over and over again this past year, we’ve faced dolor large and small. We get our hearts broken. We can’t raise the dead like Jesus did, but we can go to war with death like he did, and accomplish tiny resurrections wherever we are and wherever we go.

[1]Tara Parker-Pope, “It’s OK to Grieve for the Small Losses of a Lost Year,” The New York Times, March 15, 2021.

[2]Shawn Hubler, Giulia McDonnell, Nieto del Rio, Marie Fazio, Elizabeth Dias and Neil MacFarquhar, “Boulder Victims: A Police Officer, Grocery Workers, the Son of Refugees,” The New York Times, March 23, 2021.

[3]Robin Givhan, The Washington Post, March 23, 2021.

">[4]Emily Goodman, “The Family That Grew from Grief,” Reader’s Digest, April, 2021, pp. 83–84.

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