As we enter the second great day of the Easter season again we are faced with a curtailment of our much loved traditions.
No walk around our town centres or visiting each local church in turn. No sharing with a nice cup of tea and a Hot Cross Bun. No singing of ‘There is a green hill far away”, we will miss them all.
One of the themes that has been stressed this easter season is that of Lament. Unfortunately in our western world lament has become associated with a particular style of church music or a self-entered “poor me” attitude. We need more than either these pictures give us. We need to recover the biblical tradition of lament. Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world.
At this point the Psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, come back into their own, just when some churches seem to have given them up. “Be gracious to me, Lord,” prays the sixth Psalm, “for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.” “Why do you stand far off, O Lord?” asks the 10th Psalm plaintively. “Why do you hide yourself in time of trouble?” And so it goes on: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?” (Psalm 13). And, all the more terrifying because Jesus himself quoted it in his agony on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22).
These Psalms of lament often bring us from darkness into light by the end, they do not explain the trouble but provide some reassurance within it. They give us a fresh sense of God’s presence and hope. But sometimes they go the other way. Psalm 89 starts off by celebrating God’s goodness and promises, and then suddenly switches and declares that it’s all gone horribly wrong. And Psalm 88 starts in misery and ends in darkness: “You have caused friend and neighbour to shun me; my companions are in darkness.” A Psalm for our self-isolated times if ever one was needed.
N.T. Wright in an article in Time Magazine points out that lament, as woven into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. They reminded that much of scripture tell us that God also laments.
I know that for some Christians this may be difficult to understand. Those who believe that God ‘is in charge’. Some of my friends are surprised when they tell me that the Coronavirus is part of God’s plan and I tell them that if that’s the case then God needs a better plan!
Genesis declares, over the violent wickedness of his human creatures, God was grieved to his heart. The prophets tell us that YHWH was devastated when his own bride, the people of Israel, turned away from him.
Jesus – God in full humanity – also laments. He is angry with the slowness of his disciple and the stubbornness of the people. He weeps at the tomb of his friend. And on this most poignant of days he quotes the most disquietening of the Psalms “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22).
It is not part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. And in our lament share with the world the God and the Saviour who laments with us.
God bless and stay safe