Monthly Archives: July 2012

The tears of the world

Biblical scholar Kathleen O’Connor (Lamentations and the Tears of the World, 2002) sees the poetry of Lamentations as simultaneously an act of truth, of hope, of justice, of resistance and of wholeness. The people speak the truth of their situation to God and hold out hope that God still hears them. They come to terms with their despair, losses, and anger so that they can regain full humanity, release their energies for doing good, and live in community with others.

Their tears allow for healing. They expose wounds and painful memories, but therein lies the possibility of change.

“Expression of pain is essential to prayer,” O’Connor says. “It is that simple and that difficult. By telling the truth of its world to God, Lamentations becomes a school for prayer.”

The last verse, is fearsome, “a nightmare of abandonment, like a child’s terror that the only ones who can protect her and give her a home have rejected her forever.”

 For now you have indeed rejected us, and in full measure turned your wrath against us. (5:22)

Speaking truth to God, O’Connor says, “can seem unthinkable, because God already knows, or because God may not care, or because God appears to be the cause of the trouble in the first place.

“But as in any relationship, not speaking truth to God causes a dwindling of mutuality and an expansion of anger, resentment, and alienation. Pray anyway.”


Divine anger in Lamentations

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem.

The destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem

My eyes fail from weeping,
I am in torment within;
my heart is poured out on the ground
because my people are destroyed,
because children and infants faint
in the streets of the city.
They say to their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?”
as they faint like the wounded
in the streets of the city,
as their lives ebb away
in their mothers’ arms. (Lam 2:11-12)

No one was spared at the destruction of Jerusalem, the Holy City. God vent his anger on Judah. Blame lay with the princes, priests, and false prophets, who had encouraged pagan practices and rejection of the one God. But all suffered, even women, infants, and the elderly.

All her people groan as they search for bread …(1:11)
Young and old lie together in the dust of the streets …(2:20)

In this short book of five personal and communal laments, we have anonymous  eyewitness accounts of defeat by the Babylonians, deportation, and desolation. We come away certain of their truth. And we realize that the Old Testament comprises real stories of real people. God was at work in the events of that time, and he is at work in the events of our time.

Lamentations reveals how a devastated people worked through their painful reality, remained faithful to Yahweh, and sought some meaning of the suffering. God did not rejoice in their affliction. He had forgiven his people before. There was hope that he would do so again.

Tradition once held that Jeremiah authored Lamentations, but later scholars determined it was written over several decades. While passionate in tone, expressing chaos and suffering, loneliness, fear, shame, sickness, and grief, these laments were highly structured. Three are acrostics, with each verse beginning with a succeeding letter of the Hebrew alphabet. They differ in style and rhythm. It is possible they were sung in liturgical setting; it is certain they were later used in annual rituals to remember the destruction of Jerusalem.

“Out of the controlled literary form,” writes scholar James A. Fischer, “comes a theological insight. God can be faced and prayed to in all the divine anger and stony silence. Grief and bitterness can be surmounted to arrive at repentance and acceptance. When history has become unendurable, faith still endures.” (Collegeville Commentary, 804).

Christians associate Lamentations with the passion of Christ and read from the book during Holy Week’s Liturgy of the Hours.

Readings from the book of Jeremiah

Stiftskirche Stuttgart, Prophetenstatue aus de...

The Roman Lectionary uses passages from Jeremiah on nine Sundays during the three-year cycle of readings.

As we take our leave of Jeremiah, let us take note of some of the passages most familiar to us. (Boldface mine)

 Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.” (1:5)

 “You deceived me, LORD, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. 8 Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long. 9 But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” (20:7-9)

The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. … I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” (31:31, 33)


Jeremiah’s role in the New Testament

The prophet Jeremiah. Woodcut from the Nurembe...The great prophet is quoted directly by gospel writers and also referred to indirectly. LeClerc offers as examples of indirect influence:

  • Jesus’ cursing the fig trees that bore no figs (Matthew 21:19, Luke 13:6, Jeremiah 8:13).
  • Saint Paul’s likening God to a potter (Romans 9:20-21, Jeremiah 18:6)

Also, Jeremiah’s sufferings as a persecuted prophet set the stage for the suffering of Jesus and the persecutions of the apostles recounted in Acts. However, the apostles suffered gladly, while Jeremiah poured out his sorrow and distress in great lamentations. (Introduction to the Prophets, 270)

Direct references include:

  • Matthew, in recounting the slaughter of the innocents, quoting from Jeremiah how Rachel wept over the loss of her children. (Matthew 2:18, Jeremiah 31:15)
  • Jesus quoting Jeremiah 7:11 as he drives out the money changers of the temple. (Mark 11:17, Matthew 21:13, Luke 19:46)

The most significant influence is Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant. It figures prominently in two accounts of the Last Supper (Luke 22:20 and 1 Cor 11:25). Jesus takes the cup with the wine and says, “This cup … is the new covenant in my blood.”

But this is not the same new covenant. As LeClerc explains, there are two significant differences: Jeremiah is speaking of a renewal of the covenant between God and Israel. For Christians, the new covenant includes Gentiles as well as Jews. And it is sealed not with the blood of animals, but with the blood of Christ.

The prophet and traditions of Israel

Just as Jeremiah drew on the rich traditions of his people, so too did later writers of the Old Testament draw on the prophet.

Jeremiah, notes LeClerc, made frequent reference to the Genesis creation stories, to the exodus, and to wandering in the wilderness. He called on the memory of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. “Jeremiah is an extraordinary conservator of the religious traditions of his people and a skilled divine spokesman who can use those traditions to make known in familiar ways God’s word to the people of the covenant.” (Introduction to the Prophets, 269)

The later books Ezra, 2 Chronicles, and Daniel speak of Jeremiah, but he is most richly remembered in the Deuterocanonical and apocryphal literature. There he is associated with the end times and the day of restoration. Second Maccabees remembers Jeremiah as a prophet who prayed for and defended his people. It also preserves the tradition that Jeremiah protected the most sacred objects of worship. Before the Babylonian invasion, he ordered removal from the temple of the Tent of Meeting, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Altar of Incense. They were to be hidden in a secret cave. “The place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy.” (2 Mac 2:7).