Throughout this week, the week we call “Holy Week,” we will recall and in a small way – enter into – the stories of the final week of Jesus’ earthly life.
While the week begins with a parade, bursting with hope, soon things will change. The tables will turn. Jesus’ teachings will agitate leaders. Her anointing of him will appall observers. The meal Jesus and his friends share will be the last. Jesus’ prayers in the garden will be interrupted. His trial will be unfair, his crucifixion unjust. The curtain in the temple will be torn, because of God’s grief, God’s rending of garments, God’s lamenting, at the atrocity of it all.
And we will lament too… with words, with tears, with groans and with mouths agape…. that it had to be this way.
There is no way to put this week in a box, cover it in paper to make it beautiful tie it up with a tidy bow so that we can just enjoy Easter without walking through the rest of it.
What is Easter, without the rest of it? We cannot celebrate without first lamenting, grieving, waiting. Even though we know the story, we cannot skip to the end, as a means of avoiding walking through and working through the messy, painful middle.
And so we lament. We remember. We open our hearts and we ask God to do something deep within us… to transform us and make us new because if we come to next week the same as we are now, what was it all for?
Many thanks to Professor Amy-Jill Levine for her book Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week. This Lenten season, our congregation read the book and it shaped our worship and study. Her perspective and insight informed my own reflection during this season.
The season of Lent has arrived, whether we are ready or not. But since preparation is the purpose of this season, we don’t have to begin the season “ready.” Perhaps it is most helpful to begin this season in a posture of openness to what God will do. If we are open, we create space for God to work in our lives. Whether you engage in an intentional Lenten practice or not, a posture of openness to God is important in this season.
This year I am lamenting for Lent. Why? Because there is so much to lament – in my personal life, in the lives of loved ones, and in the world. For me, lament feels essential right now. Intentionally engaging in the practice of lament compels me to respond to hard things differently than I might otherwise. When I practice lament, I enter in and engage things that bring grief and sorrow by offering them to God. While I might be inclined to become mired in my feelings, or, depending on the circumstance, be tempted to disengage, lament enables me to feel my feelings and do something with them. Lament compels me to engage when it would be more comfortable not to. Lament enables me to be open to God.
What is lament?
I first became familiar with the concept of lament in college and seminary courses that studied the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. Lament or lamentation, according to The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, is “a religious cry of sorrow or mourning.” Certainly, I intuitively engaged in the practice of lament before I knew what it was. But learning about lament gave this type of prayer meaning and form, example and justification. While others may have defined my prayers as “self-absorbed” during my teenage years, I believe they were lament. I was honestly and vulnerably offering to God that with which I was struggling, expecting God to do something with it. After all, isn’t that what lament is?
Lament became an intentional practice for me in seminary when my Old Testament professor, Dr. Ellen Davis, gave an assignment on praying the Psalms. We were instructed to not just read them, pray them. And not just the psalms you like, all the genres of psalms, even the psalms of lament. It was while engaging in that assignment that I learned what lament truly is. I discovered that when I prayed the lament psalms written by others, I lamented not only my own circumstances, but those of others: situations long-past and those in the news today, those relevant in my own life and those entirely foreign to my personal experience.
Lament became my response when I heard about hard things in other’s lives, in the news, and experienced them in my own life. Whether I prayed one of the biblical psalms of lament or lamented in my own words, I offered the hard thing to God in as many words or images or tears or groans as I had. Then, I waited for God to do something with it.
Lament is an Act of Faith
After all, lament is an act of faith. It’s not just complaining. While it may begin there, lament is complaining addressed to God. Someone who has a lot of complaining or whining to do could do that with a friend or write about it in a journal, without addressing it to God. In the practice of lament, those expressions of negative feelings and emotions become prayer. The practice of lament requires vulnerability and trust combined with hope. Isn’t that what faith is?
Lament doesn’t stop with prayer. When we offer lament to God and expect God to do something with it, we are asking for a response from God. Lament also requires our openness to what God might ask of us, because sometimes what God does will change us or involve our participation. That is when the practice of lament becomes more than prayer. When we lament, we never know what God will do, but we always expect something to happen. It might be the opposite of what we expect.
In the psalms, lament often makes way for praise and thanksgiving. Well-known Psalm 22, which begins with:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”
“To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”
Clearly: God hears, God cares, and God responds. That is why I am practicing lament, as an act of faith, and opening myself up to whatever God will do. However you choose to prepare during this Lenten season, may you do it with a posture of openness to God. Blessings on you in this season.