By Rhody Mastin
This semester, I am taking a class focused on different images of God in the Bible. For one of our assignments, the professor gave groups of students different biblical images to sit with and pray with all semester. I was assigned the image of a God who mourns. I’ve been sitting with a God who mourns over creation in Genesis before the Flood. I’ve been sitting with a God who wept in grief at the death of Lazarus. And I’ve been sitting with a God who cries out in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.
These images present a different picture of God than we sometimes get in Sunday school. According to these images, God is sad and God is in pain. God is one who not only mourns for us (like in Genesis), but also one who mourns alongside us (like with Lazarus), and mourns in ways that are similar to how we mourn (like in Gethsemane).
Part of the assignment for the course has involved doing extra-biblical research about mourning. The idea behind the assignment’s methodology is this: if God is one who experiences grief and mourns with us, then understanding more deeply the content and processes of our own grief and mourning might help to reveal more of who God is. As a result, I’ve read some psychology journal articles about the brain chemistry of grief, research on stages of mourning, music and death, and some books by grief counselors.
But the research which has stuck with me most has been the recipes. I’m fascinated by the ways food seems to structure and outline our earthly grieving. And this goes far beyond just bringing some casseroles to bereaved family and friends. For example, there are whole recipe books dedicated to the best foods specifically for grieving people. Or take the example of food upholding collective memory—eating or cooking the favorite recipes of a beloved on the anniversary of her or his death is a common act of remembrance. Food helps us to process death.
As Ellen Kanner writes in her essay “Brisket in Bereavement,” she explains that
In grief, your carefully constructed life crashes and falls away, leaving you exposed, raw, helpless as a newborn. The bits of you that ought to be open are now obstructed. The pain of loss dulls your senses, creates a force field around your body, makes you impervious to the world around you and especially impervious to its pleasures. You shut down. Maybe that’s why, in the wake of death, feeding those who mourn is part of our human hardwiring. It’s not a matter of feeding hunger. It’s about tempting and coaxing and calling the grieving back into the world. To eat is to engage, to strengthen, to unwrap from that first layer of sorrow’s embrace and partake of the life force.
There is a significant body of research on the particular foods mourning people crave. Perhaps unsurprisingly, research shows that bereaved people crave carbohydrates. Scientists Dr. Judith Wurtman and Dr. Richard Wurtman published a famous study in 1989 about the link between carbs and depression. They argued that carbs might help us produce the happy hormone serotonin and increase our energy supplies, each of which decline during periods of depression. In extreme and sudden periods of depression—like bereavement — our carbohydrate cravings skyrockets. (I.e., there’s a reason why all of those grief cookbooks have pictures of bread on the cover and not broccoli).
I think the relationship between food and mourning might shed some insight on the Lenten journey toward Easter. Namely, as we go through Lent, we enter a liturgical time of mourning. We are to mourn our mortality, sinfulness, the old world, and remember our dustiness. And after forty days of hungry mourning, we are finally met with a meal.
Maybe this is why Jesus gives his disciples bread at the Last Supper. Maybe Jesus is trying to coax us back to life, back to the world for which we were made. Maybe this is why, in our mournful Lenten journey, we crave the ultimate life force: a carbohydrate, the Bread of Life.
Rhody Mastin is a second-year M.Div. student and CBF leadership scholar at Duke Divinity School. She currently works as a DONA trained birth and postpartum doula at Family Ways in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She earned her bachelor’s degree in public policy from the University of Virginia, and is interested in the intersection of social policy, women’s rights and pastoral care.