On Ash Wednesday we heard the prophet’s words: “Come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning” (Joel 2:12) – words which echo one of the key themes of Scripture, the theme of lament. Ancient Israel had to make sense of the blood, sweat and tears that so often marked their history; they had to learn to lament. So too do we personally and the Church as a whole. In a sense the Church is always in crisis, always under judgement – not only the judgement of the tribunals of this world but the judgement of God. That’s why we need to learn anew the art of lamentation which the Bible wants to teach us – especially perhaps in these days of Lent. That’s part of what it means to come back to God with all our heart.
For the Bible, lament is firstly a refusal of silence before God – at a time when silence may seem the only possible response. Lament gathers up the most powerful emotions – rage, shame, sorrow, depression, frustration, bewilderment, all of which can be part of our response to whatever crisis we may face. So what are we to do with all the negativity? The Bible says: Acknowledge it, give it a voice and let that voice be heard by God. It says that, even in a time of crisis, a time of break-down, we approach a God who is personal, accessible and attentive to our cry. This isn’t a God who is absent or who looks the other way but a God who is present and wants us to speak, even in the most negative ways. God wants our rage, our shame, our sorrow and so on; so we submit them all to him – not for his sake but for ours.
God also wants to hear our most anguishing spiritual and theological questions, which at times we hardly dare formulate. Where is God in the midst of the mess? Is there a future to hope in? Is there healing for wounds that seem incurable? Has the Church lost touch with the real Jesus? Does love really have the last word? Are justice and peace a mirage? These and many others are the questions God wants us to acknowledge, the questions God wants to hear, especially through the Lenten season. Putting them to God is part of what it means to come back to him with all our heart.
But that’s not the end of the story. Biblical faith goes further, because lament leads to petition. The God who listens to our cry wants us to ask him for what we most need. We submit our need to a God who we believe won’t be indifferent, a God who will respond and who wants us to work with him to build the future. Lament is a dialogue between God and us that, step by step, grows more intense; without that dialogue there is no future of the kind Scripture promises and we desire.
As we let go of our rage, our shame, our sorrow, entrusting them to God, the first glimmerings of real hope appear. Another future becomes imaginable, and biblical lament always looks to the future, as the Church must do at this time. We may not be able to sing the praises of God in a time of crisis, be it personal or communal, but lament always contains the promise that praise will come again. Lament believes that even from a crisis with all its negativity the time will come, by God’s grace and our hard work, when weeping and mourning will finally cease, and we – all of us – will be able to say with the Song of Songs, “the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, flowers appear on the earth and the time for singing has come” (2:11-12). So may it be as we move through the desert of Lent towards the garden of Easter.