An Advent Lament

This week we lit the candle of joy for Advent. However, I am fixed in a season of lament. I am not in despair, nor am I enduring any particular suffering personally, but I know many who are. Among family and friends, there are those who have lost loved ones to COVID. Some are dealing with job loss, divorce, and yet more are spiritually discouraged. The political distractions have weighed us down and we are disheartened by the public discourse so full of vitriol. It is a heavy season.

We are isolated.

Lonely.

Deeply discouraged.

Or maybe it’s just me. But I suspect not.

What does it look like to wait for His glorious appearance as His church while not fully in community? What does it mean to remain faithful while at home, sheltering in place?

Does this resemble your home communion? The Eucharist can take on different forms in different places, but during this season of quarantine, I am interested in how individualized and “homey” the forms of Christ’s body and blood have become.

More of our worship times have gone to Zoom with the colder weather and spikes of COVID cases. While our family’s participation in the Eucharist looks like the photo above, I know the truest story is that we are still being lifted up to the heavens week after week as we take in the body and blood of Christ. The heavens and the earth yet rejoice.

Although it is difficult for me to muster the emotion, my faith knows the hope of joy and peace we will one day experience fully.

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.

Romans 5:1-5 (NLT)

Does God feel far away as we are in the midst of a pandemic-induced isolation? Does he seem distant from our political and social strife, or personal sadness?

Because our Creator created us for community, it hurts when we are without the physical presence of others. In truth, we are created in his own communal, trinitarian image. We most often experience God through others.

This beautiful commemorative 2020 ornament of the Holy Family is the artwork of Clarey ClayWorks in Carmel, Indiana.

How did Mary, the mother of the Christ, endure? Did she feel God was far away with every sideways glance at her growing belly? She was likely shunned. Her life had changed drastically. And yet, when she may have felt the loneliest, there were Elizabeth and faithful Joseph, and God drawing closer to her, growing inside her, the closest he had ever been.

So he is with us, just as he promised.

He doesn’t necessarily carry us out of our grief and hardships, but sits with us in them. Entangled with our moments of sadness, we also have the joy of hope. We have Christ Himself.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted;

he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.

Psalms 34:18 (NLT)

Joy is and is not…

Introverted. Analytical. Curious. Reflective. Prone to loneliness and sadness. These are a few of my personality traits. And joyful? Optimistic? Can they be reconciled with the first group mentioned?

Growing up, I heard how Christians should be joyful people, and not morose. Lately, I have been hearing public theologians like Miroslav Volf and Willie James Jennings, or prolific writers like N.T. Wright discuss the theology of joy. According to them, Christians ought to orient themselves toward joy. Jennings describes a theology of joy as a kind of “resistance against despair and death.” While I agree wholeheartedly, I think it is important to explain what we mean by a theology of joy. What does it mean and not mean to be a joyful people?

To be joyful does not necessarily mean we walk around with smiles on our faces, or laughter and jokes on our lips. This may be default behavior for the light-hearted or for extroverts. This describes more of a personality type rather than a person living out their faith based on conscious decisions and full of hope.

Being joyful does not mean we repress feelings of sadness, depression, nor do we ignore pain and suffering in ourselves or others. Mourning is still practiced appropriately by the joyful, and prayers of lament are comfortably in the vocabulary of a theology of joy.

Jennings’ description of a theology of joy is an antidote to the dystopian films and novels of today, as well as to the postmodern aversion to hopefulness. It is a defiance against despair. It is recognizing God. James, in his letter to the early Christians, claims this as counting it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds, even persecution and calamity (James 1:2-4). Paul reminds us that it is possible, even Christ-like, to rejoice always, even in prison, even in dire need (Philippians 4:4). These are not men oblivious to the plight of others or naive in their positivity. Their joy has a hopefulness for the ultimate future; it relies on the truth that once God promises his presence, it is as good as received (Romans 4:17-18). Joy is inextricably linked with hope. Not wishful thinking, but the hope that depends solely on the character and Word of God.

At times, joy may be paired with fear, as when the shepherds witnessed angelic messengers ripping through our skies and proclaiming beauty in such startling terms (Luke 2:8-18). Surely they raced to Bethlehem both rejoicing and struck by fear. Joy may come only after a night of terror and anxiety as when King Darius paced the palace sleepless and Daniel reclined uncertain with lions’ teeth uncomfortably in sight (Daniel 6).

Joy is not void of troubles. It is not necessarily conditional, but rests on truth. The apostles discovered this, when, threatened by the powers-that-be, they prayed for boldness (Acts 4:29-30). When their prayers were answered, and they were flogged after meeting with the religious legal body, the Sanhedrin, instead of simply mourning, they rejoiced (Acts 5:40-41).Although they suffered, it was because of their greater hope.

Whereas happiness may manifest itself as a visible emotion, joy is quieter, deeper, more constant, steady and fixed. It enjoys a foundation secure, not easily shaken or destroyed. For this reason, Nehemiah bolsters the spirit of the returning remnant with the words, “The joy of the LORD is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10). And this, as they were weeping in the face of strife and chaos.

How do we, then, become joyful people? It is through practiced faith and love, by leaning in and acting as if we believed these things. We are both formed by what we believe in, what we consider and think about, and we are even formed by the acting out of these ideas. This partly means in order to become joyful people, we act like joyful people, not in disingenuous ways, but stepping toward God in hope. His Holy Spirit will meet us and guide us the rest of the way.

“There is no suggestion at all that these signs of the world’s darkness will ever be absent. But still, God’s joy can be ours in the midst of it all. It is the joy of belonging to the household of God whose love is stronger than death and who empowers us to be in the world while already belonging to the kingdom of joy.”

– Henri Nouwen in The Return of the Prodigal Son, pp. 116-117

Anna Akhmatova, Palm Sunday and the Quarantine

Many of you are busy, taking full advantage of the vast amounts of free time newly at your disposal due to the Covid-19 quarantine. As we shelter in place, one of my friends cleaned out all of her closets. My brother painted his back bedroom he uses as a studio. The neighbors are organizing their garages. I, on the other hand, have had no such motivations. I have been reading several books and have taken our mini labradoodle on even more walks. In other words, life has not been too different, except I do miss my people. I hope you are all doing well, staying healthy, remaining hopeful and loving.

Yesterday, however, something made me turn to my old friend Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet who suffered under and survived the Stalinist regime. Yesterday was Palm Sunday, a day both joyous and sobering. As we picture ourselves in the story, we cheer with the crowds while knowing the path leads to death. We feel the triumphant victory of Jesus’ humble entrance into Jerusalem, yet know he will be buried by the end of the week. I feel these conflicting emotions in Akhmatova’s poetic laments. They are only the more beautiful as she uses biblical images and biblically-rooted characters to relate both her grief and her hope.

Born in 1889, Akhmatova survived the Russian Revolution and married fellow poet Nikolai Gumilev with whom she had a son Lev. Nikolai was imprisoned and secretly executed by the Bolsheviks. Many years later, in 1935, their son was arrested as an enemy of the state and Akhmatova virtually lived outside of the prison walls in Leningrad (St. Petersburg today) in hopes of catching a glimpse of him, bringing bread, fighting for his release. Although they were estranged at the time of his death, she had lost a husband to the Soviets. She could not lose a son.

It is as this grief-stricken mother she writes the “Requiem” over the next several years each section a part of a cycle of loss, lament and persistence. In this portion entitled “Crucifix” her lament is both human and holy, a grappling for justice when there seemed to be none. Her identification with the mother of the Christ in the hour of deep sorrow seems so honest.

This portion of the poem is beautiful because of its simplicity. In the original Akhmatova employs spare, clean language with an AB rhyme scheme. There is surely a good translation of this work, but I was not happy with the one I found online. I have produced an average translation mostly for the sense and understanding, not really capturing the style. As we approach nearer to Good Friday, I am thankful we have this poet’s perspective on grief. It reminds us that in Christ’s story no one is forgotten.

Распятие.

“Не рыдай Мене, Мати, во гробе зрящи…”

1

Хор ангелов великий час восславил,

И небеса расплавились в огне.

Отцу сказал: “Почто Меня оставил!”

А Матери: “О, не рыдай Мене…”

2

Магдалина билась и рыдала,

Ученик любимый каменел,

А туда, где молча Мать стояла,

Так никто взглянуть и не посмел

Crucifix

“Weep not for me, Mother, seeing me in the tomb….”

1

A choir of angels glorified the great hour,

and the heavens melted in fire.

To the Father he spoke: “Why have you forsaken me?”

But to his mother: “O, do not weep for Me…”

2

Mary Magdalene writhed and wept.

The beloved disciple turned to stone.

Yet, there, where the Mother stood silent

To cast a glance that way no one even dared.