Reading Lamentations (extract from commentary)
Lamentations, like the personified Lady Jerusalem within its pages, often sits alone within the landscape of the Christian Bible calling out to those readers who pass by to take notice but, as with Lady Jerusalem, there is no one to comfort. Lamentations is one of those Old Testament books that have never really attained a place of prominence in Christian spirituality and reflection. This means that when attempting to think theologically about the book one does not have the rich heritage of Christian theological interpretation to draw on that one finds with books such as Genesis, Exodus, Psalms or Isaiah. Perhaps this is to be expected because Lamentations is only twice alluded to in the New Testament while a book such as Isaiah seems omnipresent. So when one comes to read Lamentations theologically as a Christian one has to start with a comparatively slender thread of prior reflection as a guide.
When reflecting theologically on Lamentations issues of method require some comment. First of all, Lamentations was not written to present a theology. As Berlin notes, “the book does not construct a theology of its own, nor does it present in any systematic way the standard theology of its time. It assumes the ‘theology of destruction’ in which destruction and exile are punishment for sin…” So one task of the theological reader is to bring to the surface the theology underlying the text and to seek to clarify its contours.
Second, Lamentations was not written by Christians, nor for Christians. The theology of Lamentations is not Christian theology. Nevertheless, Lamentations is part of the Jewish Scriptures accepted by the earliest churches as their own sacred Scripture. Jesus and his early followers saw their story as one of continuity with Israel’s story recounted in those holy scolls. Thus whilst Lamentations is not a Christian text it was received by the early church as one of the books through which God continued to address his people even if that people was now composed of both Jews and Gentiles united by faith in Jesus the Messiah.
But precisely how should Israel’s sacred texts be interpreted by this new community of Jesus? In the same way that Israel had always reinterpreted its own texts – in the light of the current thing that God was doing. For the early Jewish followers of Jesus, God had moved to do something radical in the current situation. In Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension the end of the age had come and a new age had broken in. Jesus was seen as the climax (though not the end) of God’s dealings with Israel and all of Israel’s traditions and texts were re-read in the light of Christ. Christians reading Israel’s scriptures cannot read those texts as if Jesus had not come. But, and it is an important ‘but’, to allow those texts to challenge and contribute to ongoing Christian reflection there is a critical place for seeking to hear them on their own terms. In other words, part of a Christian theological reflection on Lamentations will require the Christian reader to listen for the text’s distinctive, pre-Christian voice. The danger of only considering Old Testament texts in the light of Christ is that all one hears is what one already knows from the New Testament. But the Old Testament has much to teach Christians that they will not find in the New, often because the New took it for granted but then the later church forgot it. However, for the Christian, once one has heard the distinctive voice of Lamentations one has to bring that voice into dialogue with God’s revelation in Christ to discern how God is addressing the Church through it. This is an art, not a science. So our aim in the first part of the commentary is to hear the distinctive theological voice of Lamentations but, in the second part, it is to hear how the acoustics change when that voice is heard in the Cathedral of Christ.
It ought to be said clearly that that there will never be such a things as the Christian interpretation of Lamentations. This is because the meanings to which it gives birth are not so much ‘in the text’ as born out of the interaction of the text and the (hopefully) Spirit-led activity of its readers. Christian readers will be mixing the genes of Lamentations with the genes of other biblical texts, Christian theological reflections through the ages, the experiences of various readers and so on. The book is simply so pregnant with potential that the meanings to which it gives birth will be diverse even within the constraints imposed by canonical context, the Rule of Faith and the history of Christian interpretation.