The tragedy of today’s Syria, although not in the headlines every day, nonetheless goes on, and we remain at least vaguely conscious of it somewhere in our minds. Other human disasters also continue, most of them never hitting the headlines at all. They are representative of any number of personal or communal catastrophes that follow hard on the heels of destructive events or life experiences. When disaster strikes suddenly and horrifically, or even when it comes upon you as a normal part of human life in the world, what can you do but cry out from its depths?
Traditionally, the British have not been renowned for being overt in public displays of emotion. We are more famous for the stiff upper lip and, because of that, some cultures find Brits aloof, cool and not in touch with our emotions. In more recent times, however, some events have contradicted that. Many people were taken aback by the response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Crying in the streets, lighting candles, displaying images of the Princess: all very unBritish, the whole thing attracting much cynical comment from the intelligentsia and beyond.
Once, when I was conducting a funeral, just as the curtains were being drawn around the coffin, a relative simply sobbed and shouted out from her very depths, ‘What are we going to do without you?’ I’d never experienced that before, and haven’t done since. It came as quite a shock, and I sensed some of the others present were faintly embarrassed. Naturally, we just carried on: well, you have to. But later, I reflected on what the outburst signified for that woman.
Although it is normal in some cultures, here, loud public lamentation is rarely heard at a funeral, or when we learn that a marriage has broken up, or a catastrophe has befallen someone. There’s sorrow, certainly, but we usually keep it in check and maintain a smiling stoicism in public. One of the things I was struck by in Rachel Carnegie’s ministry in our Team was when she spoke about her trips as a development worker to various parts of the world, where people, for one reason or another, were often in dire circumstances of poverty, hunger or disease. She witnessed at first hand the tragedies of people’s lives in places where relief or cure were often not realistically possible. When asked how she coped with it, she would talk about the need to get on and do the job, but she also spoke about the need to make space for what she called a time of lamenting when she came back home.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus pours out his heart over Jerusalem. In front of visitors and disciples, he bursts into public lamentation: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Perhaps these words are spoken from a place where the city’s skyline could be seen. We certainly know that later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus goes even further and weeps over the city. And when faced with despair, sorrow, loss or disaster, perhaps we also need to lament. Sometimes, it may be that the only prayer we can offer to God is a groan, a sigh, some tears, the voice of grief.
In voicing his lamentation, Jesus builds on the tradition of his own people. It has roots in the Hebrews’ groaning in slavery in Egypt, and their desire to be liberated. It finds expression also in the Psalms, which contain many personal and communal laments, for the Psalms not only rejoice in the goodness of God, but also call out from the depths of personal loss, brokenness and desperation. Psalm 137, for example, is one of the most well-known laments of the people of Israel in exile: By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Sion.
Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus wept over Jerusalem because its people failed to grasp the means of true peace: God’s unique and chosen moment was passing them by. Jesus’ tears are not so much about people’s wickedness, but more about indifference and culpable ignorance. I guess there are many situations and attitudes that might cause Jesus to lament and cry out today. Some of them are obvious, Syria being just one among them. But others may be less so: the weapons trade, for example, or the squandering of the earth’s creatures and resources; collusion with economic systems that favour the already rich, while disadvantaging the poor; the violation of basic human dignity in the name of a cheap purchase, or entertainment, or advertising; allowing differences of ethnicity, gender, sexual identity or churchmanship to turn into walls of separation and bitterness. In all these places, and more, Jesus might well still lament, calling out to us unashamedly, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says mourners shall laugh, but he never says they must not mourn. In Romans, Paul tells us to rejoice with the rejoicing, but also to weep with those who weep. Stiff upper lip notwithstanding, Lent and Passiontide remind us that the Christian tradition doesn’t merely allow us to lament, but perhaps even demands that we do so. Lamentations are valid prayers, heard by God. They ignited the Exodus from Egypt, and saw God’s people through many tough times. But lamentations such as these are also the audacious start of something new. This Gospel invites us to break free from the poisonous silence, from the culture of denial that surrounds us. It calls us away from mere grumbling toward broken-hearted lamentation, for these are two very different things. It invites us to mourn that we may be blessed; to grieve, rather than deny the burden inside us. For when we lament a broken relationship, it may open the way to potential healing. When we lament an injustice, it opens the way to possible transformation. When we lament a loss, it opens the way to the possibility of resurrection. When we lament our shortcomings, it opens the way to unexpected change. Such lamentations are not death rattles. They are, rather, the birth cries of a new kind of living and a new kind of world. They point beyond Lent, Passiontide and Good Friday towards the Easter that is not too far distant over the horizon, despite the fact this is only the second Sunday of Lent and Easter, from this perspective, can still seem an age away.
No one wants to advocate misery: God knows – and God does know – that the wilderness of Lent can be tough enough as it is. But authentic Christianity is not all relentless cheer, either. So, since Easter isn’t here yet, let us face up honestly and with courage to the reality of today. In the book of the Revelation, we are told of a new heaven and a new earth…a New Jerusalem, when God’s home is with his people…and when God will wipe away the tears from their eyes. However, before God can wipe away our tears…we must first learn to weep. Let that be in the certain knowledge that our tears – whether shed inwardly and silently, or more openly – are validated and, indeed, shared in the very heart and in the eyes of the God whose humanity we encounter in the despairing, passionate and, yes, tearful man, Jesus. But let it also be in the knowledge that tears can be transformative, for in the Christian understanding, the place of lamentation and tears is not where our story ends.