Do take a moment to scroll down to our Postscript for a comment about our upcoming Good Friday service.
April 13th, 2017
In the south of Poland, in a town named Zakopane, there sits a prison once used by the Gestapo in WWII where numberless men, women, and children were processed on their way to the thousands of Nazi-run concentration camps.
Scrawled on one of the cell walls is an inscription by a then 18 year old girl named Helena Wanda Błażusiakówna. She was arrested and taken there on the 25th of September, 1944.
The inscription amounted to but two lines–one as a message to her mother, the other a prayer to the virgin Mary.
O Mamo, nie placz, nie.
Niebios Przeczysta Królowo, Ty zawsze wspieraj mnie.
No, Mother, do not weep,
Most chaste Queen of Heaven
Support me always.
We know little of this young woman on the cusp of adulthood, but thirty years later, the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki learned of Helena’s inscription, now a monument to Polish history and Nazi atrocities. He traveled to Zakopane to see it for himself.
There on the wall were a number of other hastily written words by others who’d been incarcerated by German authorities. Some were defiant: “Murderers!” “Executioners!” Others were more plaintive: “I’m innocent!” “Free me!” “Save me!”
But for Gorecki, Błażusiakówna’s words stood out. He would later write:
I have to admit that I have always been irritated by grand words, by calls for revenge. Perhaps in the face of death I would shout out in this way. But the sentence I found is different, almost an apology or explanation for having got herself into such trouble; she is seeking comfort and support in simple, short but meaningful words.
Her words bore their own poignancy. But Gorecki marveled at how she discerned being both caught in forces beyond her control, and also in some measure culpable for being found in those awful circumstances. He was so taken by her poised and prayerful words that he let them become the text of the second movement of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which premiered in 1977.
It’s the tone and texture of Helena’s words that resonate deeply with what we find in these few verses in Lamentations.
If you are unfamiliar with the book’s backstory, what befell the northern kingdom of Israel at the hands of the Assyrian Empire in the 8th century had now befallen the southern kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians in the 6th century. Jerusalem was laid waste and one voice sits within her broken walls, weeping.
One might easily understand why an inhabitant of a besieged city might weep. But what is the precise content of this mourner’s tears?
For one he (or she) weeps because of Jerusalem’s profound reversal of fortune. This once proud city which sat atop a majestic hill; a city whose temple stood in great grandeur, daily and annually summoning Israelites to worship in its ornate and hallowed halls; a city which had inspired kings of other nations to come and witness its splendor–this city now lies in ruin. Both its people and its glory depleted.
If you have seen the drone footage of the ruins of Aleppo, Syria in recent years, even if you have never been to that ancient city of over 2 million people (a city first inhabited around the time Jerusalem was being exiled to Babylon), you can make out from the outlines of what remains the glory that once was there. The city is now barely recognizable. So you can understand why an inhabitant who knew what the city recently was, and now sees what it had become would have no recourse but to weep. The voice in our passage manifests that same reason for lament.
But he weeps not just for the carnage, but also for the sense of disorientation and dislocation. Israel’s land–the land that had been promised to them, the land they celebrated, the land that had been entrusted to them to become a base of operations by which all nations would be blessed–this land was now lost to them. Not only had the city been razed, but now its people have been taken to a land as unfamiliar to them as its people were suspicious of, if not hosilte to them.
How many refugees in our Metroplex know this kind of disorientation? How many wonder each day whether they will be welcomed here, whether they will survive here, whether they will ever laugh again? How many nights do they put their heads on the pillow thinking tears are their only option?
As refugees they have no option of returning to all that’s familiar. Those displaced from Jerusalem had no Moses, no David to speak of a city that awaited them, for there was no city to which to return. For that, too, then this lone voice in a fallen city weeps–for what it’s lost, for where it finds itself, for having no one to offer any comfort.
For those reasons we hear in his tears that sense of being caught–ensnared by an evil machine from which they cannot extricate themselves. Like the Nazis would come for Helena, so Babylon came for Judah.
But what compounds the weeping of this voice is something more than what had befallen the city.
In verse 2 the underlying cause of the weeping is made very clear:
She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has none to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
they have become her enemies.
This is not just the language of mourning. This is the language of confession. Those lovers Jerusalem once had who’ve now abandoned her—that would be among others, the very nation of Babylon itself. In Isaiah 39, King Hezekiah of Judah admits envoys from Babylon to have a look at all of Judah’s holdings—her riches, her wares, her glories. It was like inviting the fox into the hen house.
The enovys leave. Isaiah asks Hezekiah what he’d shown them. Hezekiah replies there was nothing he had not shown them–at which Isaiah cries out in horror, portending it will only be a matter of time before Babylon returns to carry off all they’d seen. But also to take prisoner the likes of Hezekiah’s own sons.
And in a bewildering show of short-sighted obtuseness, Hezekiah takes comfort in the fact that none of this will occur until much later; it will be not his, but his sons’ problem to deal with.
Judah had sought refuge in the power of Babylon. And now Babylon had come to take power over Judah. That to which Judah had become beholden was now betraying them.
The lament of chapter 1 is therefore not just from being caught in the jaws of Babylonian imperialism. The tears stem from Judah’s own sense of culpability in her condition. She entrusted herself to a lover who was no lover. And now she was abandoned.
That was Jerusalem’s lamentable story.
But why are we listening to it? Sure, there are in our day more lamentable stories than we can count. But why compound our potential for collective grief with another tale of woe?
I’ll give you two reasons.
For one, because this was not the only time someone wept over the fate of Jerusalem.
At a time much later, during a different season of oppression, with a different occupying force laying claim to the city, another drew near to Jerusalem and had nothing but tears for those who lived within.
At his final entry into Jerusalem, it says of Jesus in Luke 19:
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
and it was not so very long before that lament that Jesus also said in Luke 13:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
What had befallen Jerusalem 600 years earlier would befall it again. Babylon before—Rome in a just a short while.
But Jesus is lamenting—weeping—for something more than the destruction of a great city. He’s lamenting a deep-seated principle at work in the hearts of those who will share that fate.
It is that principle that will seal Jerusalem’s fate. But it is also that principle that will send Jesus to His cross.
And that is the other reason why we listen to this somber story of Lamentations today.
It is the author of Hebrews who says of Jesus that it was for the joy set before him that He endured the cross, disregarding any shame that was attached to some deplorable a form of execution.
Joy drove him there–if you get your head around that. And if it’s for joy that he endured it, then it was also for our joy that He did so.
The cross, the resurrection—that’s for us, for our joy.
Joy is that capacity to take heart when all the world is crumbing around you, like a city falling.
But, brothers and sisters, if it was for our joy that he endured that cross, then we can only know that joy if we learn His lament.
Easter—resurrection day—it will all be nothing more than some date on a calendar, some opportunity for a nice dinner and women donning funny hats, unless we grapple with the lament that was the path to His joy.
So what was His lament? What was the precise content of His tears?
His tears were because you and I were caught.
There is an enemy who means nothing but our destruction. He is hell-bent on nothing less. And we our held captive to his devices, mostly how he holds us in the fear of our own deaths.
We are caught.
But, brothers and sisters, we are also culpable.
This week we call holy for what it accomplished. Perhaps its full holiness might be realized in what is still seeks to accomplish in this its most recent observance? Like him who had wept for Jerusalem’s dalliances with lovers other than its God, how many of us have sought refuge in what later came to profoundly disappoint us or betray us? How many of us find some part of our life–if not our life entire–in ruins. Or on some trajectory toward ruin because we will not heed his warnings? What are we doing in the dark that needs to come out into the light?
Maybe all of us would do well to consider that if it took God to die for us in order to be reconciled to God, then perhaps there is a worse desolation than having your city bombed, your family carried away, or your life uprooted. It was for what brought Him lament that sent Him to His cross–to deliver us from what makes us irreducibly culpable.
Do you hear in Jesus’ lament His warning? But mostly do you sense in those tears His love?
If you would have His joy, you must learn His lament. For it was by His lament that He bestowed to us His joy.
A poet much closer to our time, Christian Wiman, wrote these words near the end of a poem on the lament of death:
Praise to the light that is not yet, the dawn in which one bird believes, crying not as if there had been no night but as if there were no night in which it had not been.
The Lord Jesus is that one bird in the night who believes–the One who best believes–who comes to tell us not that our laments are no lament. But that there is no lament in which He is not glad to dwell with us–and for which he would not gladly die.
At our Good Friday service, beginning at 6pm tomorrow, lament will be our theme. You will hear and sing words that seek to wrestle with what brought Jesus lament, and what ultimately sent Him to His cross.
But one other way we will take lament to heart is to offer our own prayers of lament for where this world is properly wept over. As you can see here in tomorrow’s liturgy, prior to our time of Communion, you will be invited to pray at your seats for whatever you find lamentable here. Using the formula provided, we hope you will find a word or phrase that captures something we would ask God to attend to:
Lord, we pour out our lament for . . .
At which then the rest of us will respond with:
Lord, hear our cry.
Fleming Rutledge reminds us that when Israel in her Egyptian bondage cried out to God to remember them, they were not insinuating that God had forgotten them. Rather, asking Him to remember was asking Him to act–to be present to them. We will not offer our laments because we think He is unaware or unconcerned. But in speaking them we will beseech Him to act.