I was as a meek lamb that is carried to be a victim: and I knew that they had devised counsels against me, saying: Let us put wood on his bread, and cut him off from the land of the living, and let his name be remembered no more. But thou, O Lord of Sabaoth, who judgest justly and triest the reins and the hearts, let me see thy revenge on them: for to thee I have revealed my cause, O Lord my God.
Today is the Tuesday in Holy Week and we hear the impassioned words of the prophet Jeremiah against his persecutors. He was as a meek lamb that was carried to be a victim. He knew that his enemies had devised counsels against him and sought to take his life. Consequently, he prayed for vengeance against his persecutors.
But what was the context in which Jeremiah uttered these words? Jeremiah was perhaps the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. Like all the prophets he spoke truth to power and since truth purchateth hatred, he had to suffer for it. But more than any of the other prophets he laid bare his own soul and the anguish that he went through as he sought to fulfil his vocation as a prophet. He openly admitted that he shrank back from his prophetic calling, for he knew that it would bring upon him distress and suffering, but despite his questionings he persevered. His name has always been associated with lamentation and mourning. But in truth he was not so much a pessimist as a realist. He knew that the heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked and that the Jewish nation was blind to the catastrophe that he saw so clearly was coming upon it at the hands of the might of the Babylonian empire. He foresaw the ruin of temple and the city of Jerusalem, and pleaded with the people not to listen to the false prophets who told the people what they wanted to hear, rather than preaching the truth, whether they would hear or whether they would forbear. The prophets prophesised falsely and the priests bore rule by their means and the people loved to hear it so. For saying that the situation was now so far gone that the only hope left was for the nation to surrender to the Babylonians he was charged with treason and seemed to be an agent of a foreign power. His life was constantly threatened and he only survived at all through the help of a few close friends. Understandably he became embittered by the terrible situation in which he found himself. He wished that he had never been born, for it seemed that his destiny was to be a man of strife and contention in the land, and prayed for vengeance against his persecutors. For all his greatness and the power of prophetic vocation he was still himself a fallen human being and he found it difficult to forgive his persecutors.
How does this all relate to the via dolorosa, the way of sorrows which we mark this Holy Week as we follow in the Saviour’s footsteps on his path to the cross on Good Friday? The striking thing about the prophet Jeremiah is that he was at once so like and so unlike Jesus. Jesus too foresaw the ruin of his people and nation at the hands of a foreign power, in his case the Roman empire. He saw his people, as Jeremiah had done, as spiritually blind to the fearful disaster that was coming upon them. On his final entry to Jerusalem he wept when he saw the city, for it had rejected the way of peace that he had preached and did not know that the day of visitation was coming upon it. But in contrast to Jeremiah he perfectly embodied the divine love and turned the other cheek and went the second mile and himself suffered the death which he had announced that his people would suffer at the hands of Rome. Jeremiah, for all his greatness as a prophet, had not perfectly apprehended the divine love and had found it difficult to forgive his persecutors and had become embittered by his experience of suffering. But, as we hear from the passion narrative from St. Mark, which is the gospel for today, in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed “Not my will, but thine be done.” He was the lamb that was lead to the slaughter and yet, unlike Jeremiah, he bore his vocation willingly and without resentment. He prayed for his persecutors, but, unlike Jeremiah, he did not pray for vengeance but, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In so doing he took the evil of the situation upon himself and somehow subsumed it into good. He was the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, who was wounded for our inquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon him and by his stripes we are healed. He experienced the dark night of the soul, but he also was divine charity incarnate, that suffereth long and is kind, that seeketh not its own, beareth all things, believeth all things, endureth all things.
It is all too easy to say glibly “forgive and forget”. But the truth is that, since we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves, we cannot by our own strength forgive others. Even a prophet as great as Jeremiah struggled with forgiveness, as we all do. Forgiveness is not easy, but difficult. But we can rejoice, as we follow the path of the Saviour to the cross in this Holy Week, that he did for us what we could not do for ourselves. He offered himself in sacrificial love for us so that the human race might be forgiven. Let us pray for grace to strengthen us through whatever form the dark night of the soul may be for us in our own time and place, and that we might we enabled to forgive, as we have been forgiven.