When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream….
Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “the Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves…
I came upon this Psalm, 126, sometime this fall. Before this experience of living with monks as an intern, I didn’t really care much for the Psalms… they struck me at best as a connection to tradition, at worst a naive attempt to depict God as the reason for political victory, violence included. At some point this fall, we had rotated through the whole 150 at least twice, but it wasn’t until the third time around that it hit me. I must have been particularly receptive that day, because the last verse smacked me like a bag of bricks … Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves… there was something there, a truth I had known, a truth I had seen before…
Psalm 126 is part of the group of Psalms known as the Songs of Ascent, which are generally attributed to the Jewish community that was making pilgrimages to Jerusalem in order to worship in the Temple sometime after the exile of the 6th century BCE. 126 is particularly focused on those that have returned from exile, invoking the great joy of restoration involved in returning to the heart of faith in Jerusalem, praising the fulfillment of the promise of intimate relationship with God. It has a powerful structure to it, blurring the lines between the past, present and future, shifting from previously fulfilled promises to the present challenges a pilgrim might be facing.
On its own, it is a vivid reminder of our Jewish roots in liturgical practice, pilgrimages and ritual passage reading/singing, relationship to God in promise etc…, but read in the Christian context, the last lines in particular suddenly jump from the page…
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves….
How many times have we heard Jesus speaking kingdom language with seeds and sheaving, sowing and the fields? I like to imagine that Jesus himself had a particular affinity to this psalm, as there is no doubt he had an affinity to the psalms in general, his last attributed words being a version of Psalm 22. In the context of his life, teaching, crucifixion, resurrection, this pilgrimage psalm suddenly becomes the standard of the Christian lens, those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves…
I would not have made any of these claims, or even had an opinion of this particular psalm, if I had not seen its truth in the flesh, in the hills and valleys and eyes of Rwanda. I don’t think you could imagine a more apt analogy than Rwanda to the despair and isolation the Jewish exiles felt in the 6th century BCE, because there is nothing so distancing from God as genocide.
Genocide is truly darkness and despair in physical form. It is the absence of good. There is not a single redeeming quality to it. It is murder. It is rape. It is torture. It is war. It is hate. It is malice and it is fury. It is the opposite of what it is to be human. Genocide is so horribly repulsive to who and what we are as human beings we consistently chose to turn our eyes in horror. At times we cannot help but look away and push it from our minds.
I think in part this turning away is a response to that looming question we seemingly cannot hope to answer. Where was God in this? Where is the redemption? Where is the resurrection? Can we just skip to the good part? Why is this necessary…
It is in this experience, the absence of God, the total distance, exile, enveloped in despair, that we weep. And I wept. I wept like I had never done so before, still weep actually. And the people I met in Rwanda, they wept, still weeping too. And the Jews in exile, they wept. But…but the people in Rwanda did not just weep. The exiled Jews did not just weep. No, they were also sowing seeds.
These men and women of Rwanda, tears streaming in anguish, were sowing the seeds of love, seeds of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of hope. They were everywhere. People still living, children playing, human beings living on, all of them, sowing. And just as I was tempted to fall completely into the darkness, their work shone through. Those men you see hanging on the walls in the chapel are all weepers, and they are also sowers. Their eyes and voices hold the seeds of hope, just as the photos hanging next to them hold the darkness of despair. They hang together, a physical reminder of the truth of that pilgrims Psalm. The day of joy and reaping is coming, even as we sow now weeping.
You see, the experience of weeping is nothing new to the world. All of us have seen it. Whether it is grief, an absence too present for comfort, or poverty, or pain, or depression, genocide, you name it, it has been felt, and I would bet it has been felt by every one of you. It is an old truth, a known truth, that to be human is to suffer. But sowing, that is a different matter entirely. Because to sow is to believe in a future beyond ourselves. To sow a seed you must believe that your effort will come to fruition, outside of your control. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but there will be a sprout, there will be a flowering, and by God there will be fruit. To sow is to act in Hope.
This is the great message of Christ, the message we act out weekly here in our Eucharist. We come weeping, bearing the seed, sowing it ritually through our common worship, offering thanksgiving, offering our despair on the altar. And in a pregnant moment of hope, our offering is transformed, the living body of Christ, the ultimate answer to the question, where is God. He is here among us! She has wept as we have wept, and now our seeds have turned to fruit! And we march out in shouts of Hallelujah! Let us build the kingdom!
In the season of Lent that begins tomorrow, our hearts set out on a pilgrimage together. It is a long walk to holy week, the final summit of our shared story, the revelation of the Truth that has set us free, God among us, God above us, God through us. And as we march together, we will be singing our own Psalms of Ascent, weeping together, sowing the fields of our lives. This gallery behind you is a psalm of my own pilgrimage. I offer it in the hopes that it will reveal a truth that will prepare you for Good Friday, prepare you for the Resurrection, just as this shared worship prepares you now. When you receive the Eucharist with me today, know that the wheat and grapes that have come together to make bread and wine which have been transformed into body and blood were sown with tears;your tears, my tears, the tears of the exiled, the tears of Rwanda, the tears of Jesus himself. And when that bread and wine, body and blood touch your lips, I hope you can hear our hearts shouting out with joy. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Seth Woody is one of the Monastic Interns at the Monastery this year. This exhibition is a reflection on his time in Rwanda researching reconciliation ministries. It features the stories of 8 men, accompanied by their portraits and photos of genocide memorials, who have responded to the Rwandan genocide in extraordinary ways. At the intersection of unimaginable despair and the Gospel message of hope, hope prevailed. The persistence of hope in the lives of these men was deeply moving and inspired Seth to tell their stories in this exhibition, which will be mounted in the Monastery Chapel throughout Lent and online at http://pinterest.com/sethwoody/hope-amidst-bones/
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.