Sunday March 29th Passion Sunday /Fifth Sunday in Lent 

Passion, Lament and Prayer

This week our bouncy 14 month old Sprocker Spaniel has been recovering from being spayed and her tail docked at the same time. It was a scheduled operation but the sadness of suddenly not seeing her long feathery tail any more hit me surprisingly hard. 

As I thought about this further, I realised that I was also grieving the sudden loss of a place to worship- in particular the church building of St Gregorys, an ancient place of beauty, prayer and peace, and the physical focus of my ministry here- and also the loss of normal family life and routines that we are all having to adjust to as this pandemic sweeps the UK. 

This has hit hard especially after telling my wedding couples that they have to postpone their marriage in church after their months of planning and anticipation for their special day. And for those families who planned to have a funeral service in church for their loved one and now have to accept a bare, minimal few prayers (if that) and now have an uncertain wait to have a memorial service with family and friends. 

I am sure I am not alone in having such feelings of disorientation, sadness and grief..But what do we do with these feelings in such unexpected and unchartered times??

In light of the week that we have just had to face, I have been drawn to one of the readings for the second service on Passion Sunday which is Lamentations 3:19-33 written in the 500’s BC and attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. 

It is a ‘lament’ which is the Hebrew word for ‘how?’ (We could add ‘why?’ ‘For how long? ‘…)

In this short but powerful book there are so many questions for God, expressed and implied, in the face of the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem by the invading Babylonians and the subsequent utter devastation of the people.

But why lament? Why now?

Lament is simply a prayer for help coming out of pain and we see it expressed in other Old Testament books like Job, Jeremiah and the Psalms, as well as within the New Testament. So for me revisiting Lamentations seems so appropriate for our times. 

There are four things I would like to say about lament, together with some words from the American Franciscan theologian Michael Guinan, written after the events of 9-11.

1. Lament is an act of faith even if it looks like an act of despair.

Lament is not a failure of faith, but an act of faith because we cry out directly to God because deep down we know that our relationship with God counts; it counts to us and it counts to God.

Even if we do not experience the closeness, we believe that God does care. Even if God seems not to hear, we believe that God is always within shouting distance. In the Scriptures, God does not say, “Do not fear, I will take away all the pain and struggle.” Rather, we hear, “You have no need to fear, since I am with you”.

In fact the words ‘do not fear’ come 366 times in the Bible- one for every day plus one. Lament expresses our fears and turns them into prayer.

2.  Lament is a question we cry to God, “Why, O Lord?” 

Our suffering is so big; it does not make any sense; it lacks meaning. The desire to find meaning is a strong one.

Lament teaches us that there are indeed things we do not understand; in fact, we cannot understand. God does not say, “Do not fear; you will understand everything and have all the answers.” Our human mind can take us only so far. At times we can do no more than speak our confusion to God, and lament tells us that we should do no less.

3. Lament acknowledges our human pain.

We lament in prayer when our hearts are broken. In John 11 when Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, his sisters Mary and Martha grieved, and their friends lamented over this loss, Jesus’ heart was touched to such an extent that He wept with them (John 11:35)

Psalm 130:1 says, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice!” Jesus also demonstrated this type of lamentation when He cried out to the Father the night before His crucifixion: “Abba, Father . . . all things are possible for you. Take this cup from me”(Mark 14:36)

Lament counters a false, naïve and overly romantic view of love. Love does not mean that everything is lovely, that we never get upset, that we sit around holding hands and saying how wonderful everything is. This is unreal. 

Negativity, injustice, hatred and brokenness are part of our lives and part of our world and we have to face our human instincts for anger and retaliation

It is true that Jesus’ example teaches us to pray, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34)—an attitude found also in some parts of the Old Testament, such as Exodus 23:4-5 and Job 31:29-30. This is indeed the direction in which we hope to move, the direction we want our actions to reflect. But our feelings may not always be there—at least at first. They are real and will not go away, and if we do not recognise them and deal with them constructively, they will go underground and pop up later in destructive ways. Lament is a constructive way to deal with them.

4. Lament can lead to praise

We are in the time of Passiontide* now, where we begin the journey with Jesus towards Jerusalem, towards the cross and where we see the full measure of humanity in its negativity, betrayal, hatred and brokenness. It is the perfect time for lament, especially if our Easter praise is to have integrity, true joy and hope in our current situation.

It is only after we lament, after we face and express the pain and negativity and get it all out, that healing can begin. In more theological terms, we can say that it is only by facing and going through the death that we can come to new life, to resurrection.

Faith is the trusting of our entire selves to God. At times, we do experience God’s absence; we do feel alone and confused, and we doubt…In despair we give up on our relationship with God. Doubt, on the other hand, is a sign that our faith is alive and kicking; it is part of the rhythm of faith itself.

Even in these early stages of the pandemic we need to recognise the human trauma and shock of our circumstances and that there is already lamentation work to do.

As we work our way through this extraordinary time in human history we are also aware that we walk through the Passion of Jesus Christ.

As we express and acknowledge our grief, our pain, confusion and anger, we the Church needs to offer our communities and one another the strength and support in difficult times, the means of expressing our pain and suffering, so that our lament can lead to praise, that Lent can lead to Easter and that we can say with the writer of Lamentations: 

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,

    his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;

    great is your faithfulness.

‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,

    ‘therefore I will hope in him.’

Lamentations 3:22-24

Quotes from Biblical Laments: Prayer out of pain by Michael D. Guinan, OFM, professor of Old Testament, Semitic languages and biblical spirituality at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California.

*Passiontide is the last two weeks of Lent concluding on Holy Saturday and it marks a change of emphasis within the overall season of Lent in which the Church prepares for the celebration of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Lent is not over, but Passiontide adds another perspective. Jesus draws nearer to Jerusalem and the culmination of his ministry, leading to his death on the cross on Good Friday and into the silence of Holy Saturday…