April 9, 2012

Sitting Shiva

Filed under: Lectionary,Legacy — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 1:00 am

Magnified and sanctified may God’s great name be. Amen

I have a confession to make: I have badly misjudged the disciples. Until now, I have thought of the disciples in this week’s Gospel reading as a scared little huddle, not sure what to do with their leader suddenly taken from them.

But this Lent I set myself the task of looking at the Passion and resurrection through the lens of Jewish death and bereavement customs. And in doing so I gained a new respect for the men and the women who were Jesus’ closest companions.

The first thing I realized was that Jesus had a very faithful Jewish death. The events described in the readings for Good Friday and Holy Saturday, along with the return of the women to the tomb on the morning following the Sabbath, correspond clearly with Jewish law and practices for death and burial. Furthermore, the readings appointed in our lectionary from Job, Lamentations, and the Psalms are those scriptures the grieving family is permitted to study, if they choose to study at all, in the week following the burial.

And so from that perspective, what the disciples were doing in that closed room was perfectly normal: They were sitting shiva.

In this seven day period beginning with the day of the burial, the bereaved family members stay together in one place. They sit on low stools and do not prepare food, clean the house, or do any sort of work. They literally sit there, feeling whatever they need to feel in that space of grief and sadness. As members of the community make their shiva calls on the family, they bring the food, tidy up the house, look around to see whatever needs to be done. Guests may talk with one another during their visits, but they do not speak to the family unless the family initiates conversation.

In this context, the scenario in which we find Jesus’ followers makes sense, with two radical exceptions:

First, one only sits shiva for first-degree relatives—parents, siblings, spouse, or children. By engaging in this tradition, if that is indeed what they were doing, the disciples and the women who were with them were declaring themselves to be family.

In his poem The Twelve, William Countryman describes them like this: They weren’t self-selected, would never have formed a team on their own initiative…As odd an assortment as one’s own family or the people where one works.

Yet here they are, making an intentional statement about their bond with Jesus and with one another.

Second, though a shiva house is typically crowded with visitors, the deceased himself isn’t usually one of them—there’s no doubt that having the risen Jesus in their midst was totally unexpected.

And what does he say to them? He simply bids them peace. He says it twice, leaving space for them to absorb it. And then he proceeds to give them words of comfort and instruction.

This is a scene that is played out over and over again in our day—in homes, in clergy offices, in hospitals and funeral homes—loved ones longing for words of comfort and instruction in the midst of grief. In bidding his companions peace, Jesus shows us how stewardship at the end of life is, at its heart, stewardship of our dearest relationships.

Imagine, for example, how a signed medical directive bids peace to family members who may be asked to make heart-rending decisions on our behalf.

Imagine the comfort a funeral plan offers in the shock and disorientation of intense mourning, those first days between death and burial.

And though barely 50% of us have done it, the opportunity to make a will provides the instruction that smoothes the way for those who will succeed us as stewards of our worldly abundance. It also gives us a chance to make a final gesture of generosity to those ministries that were most important to us in our baptismal life.

Think of it this way: What peace would Jesus have offered if he had appeared in that room, and in holding out his hands to bid his grieving companions peace, had handed them a notebook? As dry as that sounds, it is precisely what we are called to do in this period of Eastertide.

And so I invite you: If you have not yet attended to stewardship at the end of life, please take the time to begin in these weeks ahead. If you have already attended to these things, now is a good time to review your arrangements, pausing to pray and discern whether they still reflect your wishes for the continued stewardship of the abundance you know in this life.

…that God may comfort those you hold dear among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.




  1. Thanks again for this. It was really helpful to have an “outside” voice reinforcing what I’ve been saying about doing this planning ahead of time. Several people commented on how comfortable you have become in the pulpit. The link to the End of Life booklet is a GREAT help–you might want to post it as a comment here.

    Comment by Nancy Moore — April 17, 2012 @ 12:08 pm |Reply

  2. The Episcopal Church Foundation’s excellent booklet “Planning for the End of Life is available as a free download at

    It is also available for purchase at

    The purchase price works out to $3 per copy, which I have found to be about the same cost as printing it out myself either at home or at my local copy shop.

    Comment by Lisa Meeder Turnbull — April 17, 2012 @ 1:59 pm |Reply

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