On 6 October 1973, on the Jewish day of atonement called Yom Kippur, the fourth Arab-Israeli War began with simultaneous attacks from the north and south by the forces of Syria and Egypt. The war, which lasted about three weeks, ended in a military victory for Israel and ended with a negotiated settlement and the Camp David agreement which normalised relations between Egypt and Israel.
Thirty-odd years later, the so-called road-map to peace in the Middle East is looking more and more tattered by the day with the State of Israel threatened by the Syrian-sponsored Hezbollah over the Lebanese border, and the home-grown Hamas and Fatah militias in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank, a powerful brew of hostility simmering among the population of Christian and Muslim Palestinians forced from their farms and villages in the wars of the sixties, seventies and eighties, generations defined by the pressure-cooker environment of the refugee camps.
For me, it’s when I see the TV news around Christmas time, the reports of violence on the streets of Bethlehem, the clashes between soldiers and children that sadly echo the themes of our own sacred stories that it really comes home to me. The holy city of Jerusalem, birthplace of the three great Abrahamic religions mocks our efforts at holiness by remaining one of the least peaceful places on the planet.
Our reading from the Book of Lamentations reminds us that this trauma has very deep roots. Actually, it was always going to be a problem for any unimportant bunch of semi-nomadic herders who decided to try their luck at planting vineyards and crops of wheat right here. To call it a land of milk and honey was always actually something of an overstatement – the rainfall’s a bit iffy for subsistence farming for a start but the biggest problem is that the Promised Land just happens to be smack bang in the middle of the route that the armies of the superpowers of the ancient world had to take to get anywhere that really mattered. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon – later on Persia, then the Greek Seleucid Empire and the armies of Rome – they all took turns at marching on through. This is one of the most fought over pieces of real estate anywhere, not because it’s particularly valuable but because it’s really in the way.
Lamentations is written sometime after the devastating siege and the destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon in 582BC – a series of military assaults ending in a terrifying siege that brought unprecedented suffering to the inhabitants, starvation and even cannibalism, ending with the king Zedekiah being led away in chains, blinded after seeing his own children killed in front of him.
The sacred and holy places of the city invaded and defiled. The treasures of the city and of the very temple of God looted and destroyed. The royal palace, the temple, the houses of the people burned to the ground. The life of the city and of the nation had come to a terrifying end.
The book of Lamentations speaks in the language of grief and sorrow to describe this terrible loss. There is no turning away from the pain, no denying or avoiding it. This is a funeral dirge for a fallen city, emptied of people – not only a military defeat, but a theological disaster, incomprehensible because Jerusalem was not just the capital city but the place where God had consented to live with God’s people. The terrifying conclusion of Lamentations is not just defeat and destruction but that God had rejected and abandoned God’s people, that God had gone mad, that God had actually attacked God’s own people in a fit of rage out of all proportion to any crime they might have committed.
The only people left in the land, the poorest of the poor, were left to try to eke out some sort of livelihood amongst the destruction. Everything that had any sort of meaning was broken, beyond the possibility of repair.
Understandably, I guess, the lectionary of the Church’s year avoids Lamentations. Just this snippet, today, and then we open ourselves to its almost overwhelming grief during the difficult journey through Holy Week. The brokenness and the rawness of Lamentations is not so unfamiliar to us, even in our modern world, but we’d rather not be reminded.
We live in a culture of denial, a culture that says there is nothing broken that money can’t fix. Throw it away and buy another one. There’s no disease that can’t be cured. There’s no problem that we can’t distract ourselves from with possessions. We don’t like Lamentations because it reminds us of the hard places of our world that we don’t know how to fix, places in our world and in our own lives where we are broken and poured out, helpless places we don’t want to be reminded of.
On a national scale we experience that sort of denial when we stop feeling compassion for the weakest and the most vulnerable – when as this week, for example, with virtually no protest we allowed our government to decide for us to stop accepting refugees from the holocaust of Sudan that for years has shamed the inaction of the powerful nations of the world – on the basis that they don’t fit in. Well, I can see how traumatised survivors of torture and abuse might have some trouble fitting in. But we need to resist this sort of invitation to turn away from the pain and the need of other people. The uncomfortable reality of course is that refugees from Sudan – as well as from other troubled places of the world - hold a mirror up to us in which we get to see the quality of our own humanity. Our Anglican Sudanese communities, the Sudanese congregations of our own Diocese, have blessed and enriched us all by their willingness to share their lives and their faith with us, their pain as well as their joy.
I wonder if the reason we find it so hard to deal with the brokenness and pain of other people because it opens us up to the hard places in our own lives? Our own experiences of feeling utterly alone or rejected, experiences of failure, of limitation, of feeling unloved or of not loving ourselves. Our rejection of others that we’d rather forget. The words from the doctor you didn’t want to hear. Losing the one you love and knowing that something has been broken that can never be fixed.
How do you keep on going at times like that, when the world as you know it has just been broken and can’t be put back together? How do you keep believing in the possibility of joy and the goodness of God’s creation when your world has collapsed?
Every week we come here to take part, together, in an action that I (for one) barely understand, the sharing of broken bread and poured-out wine that becomes new life for us by joining us to our Lord’s death. It’s no accident, I think, that Jesus offered his disciples these things not just as a convenient symbol to help them remember what he did, but as a way of allowing them – and us – to enter into who he most fully is. Grapes get crushed and allowed to ferment – wheat is harvested and ground up to make bread – changed into a new reality. And then the wine is poured out and the bread is broken up so that there’s no way we can put it back together again. And yet Jesus tells us that in the pouring out of the wine and in the breaking of the bread there is unity, and integrity, and wholeness. In this fragmentation that can’t be undone there is completeness, because it’s not when everything’s going swimmingly, it’s in the moment of fracture, in the crack you hear when something breaks and you know it can’t be unbroken, that you encounter Christ. What is broken beyond the possibility ever of being fixed becomes the bearer of grace than can transform us and make us new. That’s what it means, I think, that God chooses to be revealed to us most fully in the failure and trauma of the cross, the weakness and vulnerability that St Paul tells us is the transformational power of God.
The Book of Lamentations is hard reading, unremitting in its awfulness, the self-obsession of despair that seems by the third chapter to have given up and sunk into depression, until, suddenly, a brief and powerful memory occurs to him:
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.
In Jerusalem, in Sudan, in our own moments of being fractured, shattered, and brought to ruin - if only we will accept it, love is waiting there for us to be found and lived anew.