Tag Archives: Lamentations

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.”

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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.