A couple months ago we looked at the book of Lamentations in the daily office lectionary. There, we noted how the book functions as a sort of appendix to the book of Jeremiah, giving expression to the deep sorrow of the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians. The book is a series of five Hebrew poems, alphabetic acrostics of varying length and elaborateness, each bewailing the destruction of Jerusalem from a different point of view, be it the third-person perspective of an observer, personifying the city itself, and others. Each chapter is its own poem. Apart from the Hebrew acrostics, other elements show up from time to time: there are call-and-response elements pop up, as if some of these poems were used for a liturgical community lament around the wrecked Temple. The varying of perspective, too, enables one to embody the experience of the city itself, or the Temple itself, looking at the destruction and devastation from several angles.
We also noted that one of the simplest appropriations of this book in a Christ-centered manner is to connect the Old Testament Temple building to the New Testament Temple of Christ’s Body, which was destroyed on that first Good Friday and “rebuilt in three days” as Jesus promised (John 2:21). Now that Holy Week is here, it’s time to return to that christological reading of Lamentations.
Popular evangelical piety today has very little room for lament, much less lament over the death of Christ. Although one of the central tenets of Evangelicalism is crucicentrism – being “cross-centered” – there is comparatively less attention to the actual death of Christ than in the older liturgical tradition. Evangelicals will readily accept the importance of his death, but “liturgically” apply it in a different way. You can see this most clearly in the popular hymnody and contemporary praise songs of modern evangelicalism, where the death of Christ is inextricably linked to his resurrection, and celebrated as a set of events for which we give thanks. What love Christ showed us upon the Cross!
This is not untrue, of course, but it is only one approach to Christ’s death. The wisdom of the liturgical tradition is the ability to consider these Gospel events from multiple perspectives. Palm Sunday highlights our complicity in the death of Christ by juxtaposing the Triumphal Entry and the Crucifixion in one worship service. Maundy Thursday (and to some extent, Good Friday also) highlights the high priestly work of Jesus on the Cross. Elements of the Good Friday service in modern Prayer Books (and pre-reformation tradition), namely the Veneration of the Cross, take a more visceral approach to the death of Christ, considering the means by which Jesus was killed and thus wrought our redemption. The Lamentations, finally, which our Daily Lectionary appoints on Thursday and Friday (and this Customary recommends for Midday Prayer beforehand, too) contribute to the angle of mourning.
Christ has died. This was unjust! As the city of Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon not only symbolized but actualized the presence of God among his people, so too did the physical body of Christ actualize the presence of God in this world. The destruction of the first Temple building was both a cultural trauma and a spiritual loss… so much more is the destruction of the Temple of Christ’s Body! Unlike Jerusalem, Jesus was not guilty of mass apostasy, so the analogy is not perfect; but if you consider the idealized Jerusalem and the divine purpose of the Temple of Solomon, then its destruction is worthily lamentable, just as it is right and proper to weep over the death of Jesus.
It may be the question of some evangelicals unfamiliar with our tradition, at this point, why one should lament the death of Jesus anymore, since the resurrection has already occurred. First, it’s just like Christmas or Easter – Jesus isn’t a baby anymore, and Jesus isn’t walking around Earth anymore, yet we still celebrate his birth and his resurrection. It would be inconsistent and imbalanced not to observe his death as well. Second, for those who go so far as to question all such commemorative holidays, there is the simple biblical example of identificational ritual worship. Specific rites and rituals aside, one of the clearest lessons we see in the Bible about how to worship God is the use of identificational rituals – the communal re-living of past events that shape and form our identity. For the Jews under the Old Covenant that was the Passover, the Giving of the Law, and a number of other events that shaped their history and came to be commemorated. For us that means the Gospel events around the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, as well as the Pentecostal descent of the Holy Spirit. These cornerstones of historical events shape who and what the Church is. To “pick favorites” among them at the neglect of others is to create an imbalanced sense of identity.
And so, if just for parts of one week in the year, we weep with the daughters of Jerusalem, with the Virgin Mary and her friends, over the cruel and unjust death of Jesus of Nazareth, our Lord and our God. And the book of Lamentations helps us do that.