Old Testament Professor Robert Hubbard once described lament as “the best way to reckon with the pain and suffering so prominent in today’s news.” It is also our most honest and healthy response when the losses and pain hit closer to home. In the following article, Rev. Keith A. Marsh, Rector at Church of the Messiah, Lower Gwynedd, PA, offers an invitation to lament that I find freeing and also hopeful. After all, lament is not the end of the story, although for all of us it is an inevitable part of the journey. The article is published here with his permission.
Second Sunday in Lent
17 March 2019
It really shouldn’t need to be said, but we can all use a good reminder: Our prayers should be honest, sincere and heart-felt. For God deserves—and expects—nothing less than the truth from his children. That having been said: have you ever considered that sometimes the best and most truthful prayer to God may be a groan, a lamentation, a plea, or the voice of grief.
Maybe you have had this experience . . . You attend a visitation at a funeral home, or perhaps here in the narthex of the church, and the place is crowded. As you enter, you notice that people are gathered in small groups, engaged in animated and lively conversation. It looks and feels like any other successful social event . . . except, of course, that no one is holding a cocktail, and there’s a casket at one end of the room.
Or have you ever been with a group of friends, and somebody breaks the news that a particular couple, well known to all of you, is getting a divorce? There’s an awkward silence. Perhaps a nervous cough. Facial expressions turn serious. Then somebody brings up a different subject, and the conversation picks back up and rolls along.
What’s missing in these two scenes is public lamentation. In one case, somebody has died. In the other, a marriage has collapsed. There’s acknowledgment of what has happened, but no public lamentation. People may feel bad, but heartfelt, honest emotions remain hidden inside.
In today’s Gospel, some Pharisees tell Jesus that he is in danger from Herod. Are these Pharisees friendly or antagonistic toward Jesus? Should their warning be appreciated as welcome advice, or are they trying to silence Jesus by making him afraid? It’s hard to tell. We don’t really know. Perhaps some of both.
But Jesus does not fear Herod or focus on him for long. Instead, his concern is for Jerusalem and its people, and he vents his grief over that holy city with its history of killing the prophets sent by God. There in front of visitors and disciples, he bursts forth into public lamentation: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Perhaps these words spill forth from his lips, from his heart, at some place where the city’s skyline can be seen—perhaps from a vantage point overlooking the city on the Mount of Olives.
Today we often hear the question: ‘What would Jesus do?’ The initials WWJD appear in many places as a reminder that Jesus is to be our great exemplar. If he is, then consider this: In this morning’s Gospel, we hear about something Jesus does. He laments. He publicly expresses his grief and sorrow. And perhaps we, following his example, must do the same at times.
Jesus expresses his grief over Jerusalem as a city that persecutes, even kills, the prophets sent by God? And he leaves us with an unforgettable image, an image at once tender and gentle, and somewhat surprising. Listen again to what he says: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Surprisingly, Jesus pictures himself not as a king or a conquering warrior, but as a mother hen, eager for her little chicks to find shelter and protection beneath her soft, comforting wings. This does not describe the mighty and triumphant warrior-king many people are waiting for. Yet this is how Jesus presents himself, there in this moment of deep lamentation.
We may feel that the picture of a weeping savior is striking and unprecedented, but in voicing his lamentation, Jesus is building on and following in the tradition of the Jewish people. Consider the Psalms, which have rightly been called the poetry and hymnbook of the Hebrew Bible. In so many of the psalms, we find a communal or personal lament. Something is wrong—whether illness, unidentified misfortune, or national disaster—and there comes an outcry, a turning of pain into speech. To pray the psalms is not only to rejoice in the Lord’s goodness, but also to groan along with a world broken and distressed.
Indeed, when he voices his lamentation over Jerusalem, the holy city, Jesus builds upon the foundational event of his people: their Exodus from Egypt. Back before the dividing of the Red Sea waters, back before the ten plagues, or even the call of Moses, we hear what sets the whole thing rolling: the Israelites groan under their slavery and cry out. From their slavery and oppression, this deep cry for help rises up to the heavens and the ears of God.
The people cry out. They do not remain silent. They cry out with a mighty, heartfelt lamentation, and God hears their groaning, their outcry, the lamentation erupting and flowing forth like hot lava from their hearts.
So when Jesus laments over Jerusalem, he builds upon many of the psalms, these emotional and brokenhearted hymns that reach out for hope in the midst of pain. He builds on the story of how his people became a nation, lamenting their slavery, and crying to their God for release. Now he looks out over Jerusalem, where slavery is not so much external bondage, but a freezing of the heart that cannot welcome divine liberation and release even when the Lord is in their very midst.
In contrast to this ancient tradition, public lament is an experience unfamiliar to us in our culture and time. Rarely is public grief heard, even at a funeral, or when we learn that a marriage has split apart. There’s grief, for sure, but we keep it close and terribly private. Rather than publicly lament, we swallow it, bury it deep within, carry it around, and let it eat away at our insides.
Public lament is an unfamiliar experience even in most churches. Here as well, all too often, sadness stays private; we keep up appearances at all costs. We take away the cross and substitute a happy face. We hold back how we really feel and call it Christian joy. Far too often, we feel the need—even here in church, where we should feel safe enough to be truly open and vulnerable . . . yet, even here, we are embarrassed by and feel the need to apologize for our public tears.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus promises that mourners shall eventually laugh; but he never says they must not first mourn. In Romans, Paul tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice, but also to weep with those who weep. Christianity is not the practice of the stiff upper lip. Our faith allows us to lament, even demands it.
Are there not places in this world, this country, this city, where Jesus still weeps and cries out? Countless Jerusalems cause Our Lord to lament, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
And if Jesus laments in these places, should we not join him?
- Where we attempt to solve social problems by building still more prisons and walls.
- Where we try to maintain control over others by increasing our arsenals.
- Where entertainment and advertising do violence to basic human dignity.
- Where differences of ethnicity or sexual identity turn into barriers of separation and bitterness.
- Where you and I become small and mean and shriveled, unloving and unloved.
In all these places, and others like them, Jesus still stands and laments, calling out to us:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Lamentations such as these are valid prayer. Faith demands them. Lamentations such as these are heard by God. They ignited the Exodus from Egypt. Lamentations such as these are the audacious start of something new.
Jesus invites us to break free from the poisonous silence, from the culture of denial that surrounds us. He calls us away from mere grumbling and toward brokenhearted lamentation. He invites us to mourn, in order that we may be blessed; to grieve, rather than deny the burden inside us.
For when we lament a broken relationship, it opens the way to healing. When we lament an injustice, it opens the way to transformation. When we lament a loss, it opens the way to resurrection. When we lament our shortcomings, it opens the way to unexpected change.
Such lamentations are not death rattles.
They are the birth cries of a new world,
a new Creation,
and new possibilities,
and new life.