The Shroud of Turin, believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus, has characteristics of a photographic negative. This has been inverted to a positive enhancing the image. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Comment: There is light behind shadows of grief

  • November 13, 2017
Visiting a cousin, Joe, who lives far away, my family and I received a tour of his most unusual home. 

Most of it is a warehouse, which he walked us through, room by empty room. It was once a lively, thriving production plant for fine foods, a family business. But changing regulations made it financially unviable and it had to be closed some time after his father’s death. Now, much emptiness dwells where much life used to be.

In the adjoining family home, where my cousin still lives alone, he cared for his mother until her recent death. Each room was shadowed and still, wrapped in a shroud of sorrow and grief. Joe seemed to be, like the man in the Gospel, “dwelling among the tombs,” alone (Mark 5:3). 

Where else could that Gospel man dwell? He was a man afflicted. The living wouldn’t have him, so he went where he could, unrestrained by their fears. He was ahead of many of us, since he knew he lived among the dead. We all dwell there, but don’t always realize we do.

The townspeople didn’t know, but the outcast man knew. He became an object of fear and loathing to the townspeople because they threw him out, and pretended away the tombs he lived with. 

Joe knew, too. He knew that sorrow, grief and even death are not the enemy, though they bring anguish. He held them, wrapped and silent, but acknowledged. 

Recently I attended a funeral in which the dead person herself was absent — the law of that country does not allow the body at the funeral. Not uncommonly in our own country, funerals, memorial services or “celebrations of life” are held with the dead person entirely absent, long after their death. 

If we throw out grief, sorrow and the power of death itself, no wonder they will seem fierce and dangerous to us. Grief has its place and takes its time. It is a gift, too. Behind the shadows, or through them, life shimmers in, giving shape to our sorrow and showing us what our eyes could not otherwise bear to see: God comes “wrapped in light as in a garment” (Psalm 104).

It’s hard to receive that light, hard and painful to allow our decayed and rotting places to be unwrapped, even by God who has unwrapped death to reveal the face of the risen Christ. Instead of throwing out grief and death, some of us throw out the light of the Resurrection. 

Some in our culture pretend death away, or think they can use it as a medical aid, but we Christians are more likely to cling to suffering and refuse to leave the tombs even when Jesus bursts out and urges us to leave with Him. The outcast man, possessed by a legion of demons, isn’t so foolish. When last we see him, after Jesus has restored him to his right mind, he is going out to proclaim in the surrounding towns the healing and new life he’s experienced.

On a trip to Italy, I was able to visit the Shroud of Turin. For popular piety today, it’s a relic of the Passion. But science has instinctively treated it as the shroud of the Resurrection. 

“Let us allow ourselves to be reached by this look,” Pope Francis said when contemplating the face on the shroud, “this look which is directed not to our eyes, but to our heart. In silence, let us listen to what He has to say to us from beyond death itself.” In the face, it’s the light that presses against the shadows, not the other way around. It’s the peace that penetrates the anguish, though both are visible. “It is as if a restrained but powerful energy shines through,” Francis continued, “as if to say … the power of the Risen One overcomes all things.”

Cousin Joe’s willingness to show us around the empty rooms, with their deep shadow of grief, left us feeling sad and empty, too. Until he brought us to the last room and with a sudden sparkle said: “Let me show you what I’m working on now!” And there was a work table filled with tiny tools, bits of wood, stones, grasses, dried fruits and leaves, miniatures of trees and rivers, caves and pathways, little figures of animals and people, all in the process of being gathered by his artistry into an intricate and glorious nativity scene. When finished, his nativity scene will be filled with life, in celebration of the birth of Life — created in the shadow of death. 

I’m not sure which is greater, our fear of suffering and death or our fear of the resurrection. Perhaps that is the result of separating them — treating death as if it were merely an antidote to suffering, without resurrection behind it, or treating the resurrection as if it were warm and fluffy without the awful power of death in front of it.

(Marrocco can be reached at

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