How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
2 She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies.
3 Judah has gone into exile with suffering
and hard servitude;
she lives now among the nations,
and finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
in the midst of her distress.
4 The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter.
5 Her foes have become the masters,
her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has made her suffer
for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe.
6 From daughter Zion has departed
all her majesty.
Her princes have become like stags
that find no pasture;
they fled without strength
before the pursuer.
7 Jerusalem remembers,
in the days of her affliction and wandering,
all the precious things
that were hers in days of old.
When her people fell into the hand of the foe,
and there was no one to help her,
the foe looked on mocking
over her downfall.
8 Jerusalem sinned grievously,
so she has become a mockery;
all who honoured her despise her,
for they have seen her nakedness;
she herself groans,
and turns her face away.
9 Her uncleanness was in her skirts;
she took no thought of her future;
her downfall was appalling,
with none to comfort her.
“O Lord, look at my affliction,
for the enemy has triumphed!”—Lamentations 1:1-9
Lamentations: just the title of this biblical book conjures up images of weeping, crying, grieving. Yet, amid pain and destruction, there are glimmers of hope. Things are to be restored but, beyond that, renewed and reinvigorated in perhaps new and better ways after a period of stillness and reflection.
Lamentations contains the Prophet Jeremiah’s elegies for Jerusalem, once a great and mighty city, now in ruins and misery, her life completely altered after its destruction by the Babylonians. Though focused on a city, the book and this passage really speak to me of the whole world, and the current losses and desolation felt keenly within people’s lives.
The Text in Its Context
Traditionally attributed to the seventh-century BCE prophet Jeremiah, this passage is styled as a lament of the prophet over the fall of Jerusalem in 597 BCE, which he had warned of, and which he attributed to the faithlessness of the people. The conquering Babylonians pillaged Jerusalem and the Temple and largely depopulated the city, deporting its elite and most of its inhabitants to Babylon. In its original Hebrew, this passage is an acrostic, a poem whose 22 stanzas consist of triplets, each beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in order.
The description of the deserted city, “once full of people” is comparable to the situation within many places today, when we see photos of once-full, familiar places across the world making the rounds in the media. Though the city is full of places, the life within it comes from the people living out their lives in its streets and buildings. Of course, in the current situation, most people haven’t left the places where they live; they are just enclosed within their homes. However, some expats may well have returned to their “home countries.”
The description of some of the lack and difficulties the city is undergoing – “no-one to comfort her,” “affliction and harsh labour” are surely things which some people are having to undergo across the world not only in these times, but always. They are forgotten, and their voices are often unheard by many of those in power as well as by much of the general population – these are the sick, the homeless, the lonely, the poor, those living in fear. Although in some ways this virus, for bad reasons, is seen as some kind of “leveller,” hitting all in society the same, in reality, those living in the poorest sectors of society and those who require social care and support are the ones being most abjectly affected. Some may be afforded temporary respite, but the majority faces worse hardships than before the pandemic.
The Text in Our Context
Obviously, not all of this passage is applicable to now, seeing as it was written for a specific purpose thousands of years ago, focused on Jerusalem. However, there might be something to draw from the wealth and prosperity of commerce as well as the influence and power of countries being exposed to the light and brought low by the coronavirus. This virus not only causes sickness and death in the most serious cases, but has already had a negative effect on the economic prospects of countries worldwide, and affected even the most robust of medical systems. It puts into perspective the promises of Boris Johnson prior to Brexit to “make our country great again,” in a rhetoric copying Donald Trump, when in stark contrast the UK currently has one of the worst death rates and highest number of cases in the world. On a wider scale, humanity or at least a proportion of humans have wielded their power over the rest of creation and now are being put firmly back in their place, enslaved in some ways by this virus, their physical contact with one another limited for fear of endangering others and themselves.
The very real grief and loss are realistically described, in, for example, “how bitterly she weeps.” Such pain, anguish and even anger are all emotions I have felt in varying degrees over the past few months, no doubt mirrored by countless others. Being faced with calamity, sudden losses, crushed expectations and failed plans, and for some serious illness or even death, causes such emotions and crying out to God. It is only natural and in my eyes important to acknowledge all this, before moving forward and looking ahead. I was surprised by the speediness (sometimes by necessity) and very quick adaptability of many to new ways of working, in particular a transfer as far as possible to online, virtual forms of contact with others, which for some is their usual daily lifeline and connection with the world. This is all commendable, but it is also OK and perhaps important to stop, process and reflect before going again, as otherwise we run the risk of not noticing what is missing from our lives, of reflecting what needs to change, of considering our values and desires as well as the needs of our neighbours. We need to lament.
For all of us, adjustments have had to be made in our lives, meaning some who were living within their means or on the edge now find themselves struggling, having lost jobs or been furloughed. For others, the loss or change in lifestyle, altered living arrangements, upset to daily routine and impact on social interactions have begun to grind them down, leading to an increase in people presenting with worsened or new signs of mental illness or at least a poorer state of mental health; some truly are “in the midst of distress.” Some, already living on the margins of society, find themselves like Judah in exile, having to socially isolate, less protected and valued by the government and its strategies to combat coronavirus.
The vivid image of what once was in Jerusalem reminds us all of the times of festivity, public worship corporately in church buildings and cathedrals, celebrations and cultural entertainment which only a few months ago filled cities by day and night. We too wonder at our own barer roads and “desolate gateways.” Though many mourn the loss of these experiences in the flesh in cultural and spiritual places, and yearn for them to be full again, the translation of many events and services online has enabled some of the worship, music, drama, entertainment to still occur and in fact opened up the possibility for more to attend than might have been able to otherwise. The talents, values and gifts of some previously noticed professions, God, the community to be found in towns, the courageous spirit of the nation have all flourished in this very different time, where sometimes they were quashed by individuality and superiority of others. Much good is being discovered and unfulfilled potential tapped, and hope for change is on the horizon. Things which had remained hidden by the trappings of society and the busyness of daily life have been laid bare. All have to reconfigure their personal and corporate lives, weighing up their values in life and the causes they are fighting for. Injustices and inequalities are being brought to the light, now as then, and there is great suffering for all.
Yet, both for Jerusalem in the prospect of the “new Jerusalem” and for us today, there is hope. Though we might sometimes feel afflicted, like “the enemy has triumphed,” Christ has won the victory over evil and sin. We have hope not only for eternity but in our lives today too. All things will eventually be made new, but we have a chance to do our bit now to be beacons of Christ’s light in our communities and world, to combat climate change and safeguard all creation, to offer a helping hand to those most in vulnerable and in need, to comfort the sick and the lonely. Nothing with God is impossible. Although there is much grief and pain, and many remember fondly things before lockdown and the pandemic hit and wish to return to how things were, we can do more. We can look to the future, not back to the past.
Yes, let’s reinstate some things we could do then but can’t do currently, such as hug our friends and families and be together in person. Yes, let’s fill our city spaces again with laughter and conversations and our churches with praise of God. But let’s take some of what we’re learning in this time into the future with us and make our churches and societies more open, inclusive and missional. Let’s not limit ourselves but be open to God, prepared to be changed and renewed, because after death comes life.
- Do any of the emotions and feelings recorded within the passage resonate with you? If so, how and why?
- In what ways, if any, has the current situation affected your relationship with God and others? Are there changes you hope to make going forward?
- Think of a way you can be a blessing to others, then go and put it into action, e.g., donating some food/money to a food bank, sending a message of encouragement to someone, sharing a gift you have with others .
- Pray for those you know (perhaps including yourself) who are especially anxious or vulnerable at this time, as well as those who are ill and those who grieve. If you’re struggling, think of writing a journal to record your thoughts and feelings and do talk to someone.
Resources I have enjoyed from the UK
- This is a pandemic blessing written and produced by a friend, Grace Thomas, featuring several members of the congregation of the churches I served in Manchester: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_c30LcVNmw&t=55s
- This is the UK Blessing, featuring many people from across the UK: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUtll3mNj5U
- Beatitudes for a Global Pandemic, written by Jayne Manfredi and illustrated by Dave Walker: https://cartoonchurch.com/content/cc/beatitudes-pandemic/
- This is the link to the website of St Martin’s in the Field, who have created a lot of digital talks, reflections etc: https://stmartins.digital/
- My local church Holy Trinity St Mary’s Guildford has produced short but effective reflections as well as virtual choir pieces: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC8u4ifk6gS9q0NYdsJkIz9g
A few choral songs I have particularly found comfort in over the last few months:
- Rheinberger – Abendlied
- Brahms – Geistliches Lied
- Faure – Cantique de Jean Racine
- Rutter – A Gaelic Blessing
- Elgar – Lux Aeterna
Be our comforter and our guide in these uncharted waters.
Renew our spirits when we feel tired and weighed down.
Empower us to truly love others and reach out to those in need.
Inspire in us the hope and vision for a better future,
And draw us ever closer into Your Presence.
In the name of Christ, we pray.
Annika Mathews writes of herself: “I’m in my mid 20s, currently waiting to see what God calls me to next. Over the last few years, I’ve done a variety of paid and voluntary internships, some in ministry contexts across the UK as well as 1 year spent in Romania. I’m an Anglican but also an extended member of the Methodist Church. I am currently Lay Rep from the Church of England on the Churches Together England Enabling Group.”