Fifth Sunday of Lent
Lent is a difficult season to live into. 40 days contemplating our frail and fragile condition, giving sadness and heaviness room to breathe. This is particularly true in a culture that values positivity like it were gold. Which leaves little room for tears. Crying is for girls, or babies, not for people who are trying to keep it all together. Yet this week’s psalm is all weepy and emotional.
The psalmist apparently has no regard for good manners or propriety. Psalm 126 reads like the interior of a manic person.
Laughing, shouting, crying, shouting, weeping, shouts of joy.
None of it is ignored, all of the emotions are part of the song, all honored. The psalm cares nothing for the safe center of the emotional spectrum. It does not say: “First we were all a little bummed, but then we felt pretty good.” No. Instead it says: “First we were drenched in tears, then we were shouting for joy.”
The psalm ends in joy, but it doesn’t skip the sadness to get there. The poem is a journey home, and part of that journey is through the valley of shadows and pain. The pain and trouble cannot be bypassed, because it is exactly at that point of honest crying out that the future is opened to something new.
That is the logic of the psalm,
the logic of Lent,
even the logic of the Gospel.
Notice the little detail in the psalm about the stream-beds in the Negev. “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negev.” The Negev desert is in the southern part of Israel, to the north are mountains, and in the short rainy season the water runs off the mountains and into the desert. The water does not gently flow into the Negev, slowly filling the stream beds.
It floods the place.
Every year people are killed as the watercourses, once dry, are overrun with rushing water. In previous times in Israel’s history before the plains eroded, this flood would spill into the farmlands and sustain the crops for the growing season.
So when the psalmist pleads for the Negev to fill with water, the expectation is that God will bring the rain which will in turn bring the harvest. But the next verse mentions no rain. Instead it says, “May those who sow in tears.”
So much sadness that it could flood a desert.
Psalm 126 is what we call a song of ascents. It is a part of the psalter that would have been sung on the way up to Jerusalem and to the Temple during the high holy days. The psalms functioned like a hymnal. Each served a purpose, and the songs of ascents were the traveling songs.
Last year I was in Jerusalem at the Temple mount and heard a story about these pilgrimages to the old Temple back when there still was a Temple instead of rubble and painful loss. Our group took a tour of the tunnel excavations being done on the Temple wall that is buried under years of history. At one point we got to this huge model of the Temple that flipped around to show us the different periods of construction and destruction. Our guide flipped it to the model of the Temple in its heyday, before the conquests and the exile and the loss of home. And he told us this story.
He said that during the high holy days, people would come into the Temple Mount through a main gate and create a huge line that went around the outer perimeter, which would wrap a mile around. Everyone lined up in one direction, moving toward the center. This would be one of only a handful of times each year when all of Israel would gather together. People would see relatives and friends they had missed for months. They would catch up on each other’s lives. She had a baby, he got married, they planted a new crop.
But if someone was in mourning, if their heart had broken to pieces during those months apart, then they did not walk the line with everyone else. They would walk the Temple mount for a mile in the other direction, against traffic. In the sight of all of Israel.
No one could ignore it, and they therefore told about their grief by putting one foot in front of the other.
But the psalmist does not get lost in sadness. Instead all of that pain somehow makes room for joy. One relies on the other. The psalm believes the absurd logic that tears can change things. Go read about the Egyptian revolution and Wael Ghonim for more about the political/transformative aspect of tears.
Lent is the time when we walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward the cross.
When Jesus approached the city of Jerusalem for the first time, he climbed the Mt. of Olives,one foot in front of the other, and as he looked out over the city, he began to weep.
What was Jesus sowing with his tears? Did he chant this little psalm as he crested the hill, looking over the holy city and realizing what was left to do?
First the crying, then the joy.
First Friday, then Sunday.
First the dying, then new life.
There is no previous reflection on these texts. You may download our collection of previous year C reflections here.