Beginning Advent with lament

The sound of Rachel weeping

Dec 9, 2014 by

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A cry of anguish is heard in Ramah —
weeping and mourning unrestrained,
Rachel weeps for her children,
Refusing to be comforted —
For they are dead.
– Matt. 2:18

I first wrote a longer version of this reflection in 2005 during our first Christmas in Bethlehem, Palestine, where my husband and I served with Mennonite Central Committee as co-peace development workers. This reflection has surfaced in my heart again this Advent, in light of the grieving mothers of black sons and daughters that have been profiled and killed in our country. I have modified the reflection to include the naming of their reality.

Advent 2005
The Church of the Nativity, where it is agreed that the birth of Jesus took place, is right “up the hill” from our apartment here in Bethlehem. The church, which actually houses three churches — Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic — has one special spot witth a silver 14-point star marking the birthplace. People often kneel and pray there, touching and kissing the holy place. When we first moved to Bethlehem, we took a tour of the church. I remember the first time I saw the birthplace — in the presence of decorative linens, candles and the smell of incense. I was trying to imagine the miracle that took place there —picturing the baby wrapped in common linens, light and warmth from a small fire, and the smells of the surrounding animals.

At a later point in our tour of the church, we entered the Tomb of the Innocents, a dimly lit cavernous space holding many small skeletons, most likely from the 2-year-old and younger children who were massacred at the hands of soldiers under the order of King Herod. This space was very plain and rather unrecognizable, so lacking the honor of the ornate that, if it weren’t for the tour guide, we may have missed it entirely. However, living here in Bethlehem, surrounded by the pain and suffering that is the daily reality for people here, this part of the story was brought to the forefront of my Advent reflections; a part I could no longer permit myself to glaze over, numbing my heart and my mind to the injustice so that I could get to the hope.

I went back and revisited the biblical story. I read the words about Rachel’s anguish, and her fierce outcry in response to the injustice that took her innocent children away from her. Rachel, the matriarch buried in Bethlehem, represents the biblical mothers of Bethlehem, and she now represented for me all of the mothers who have held the lifeless bodies of their children. Their feelings of anguish run deep and are summed up in one word: devastation. I appreciate the way this anguish is not lost in the scriptures, but written bluntly — “weeping and mourning unrestrained” and “refusing to be comforted.”

Advent 2014
This fall at Lancaster Theological Seminary, I was participating in a gathering of people committed to work on antiracism within the institution and within us. Dr. Stephanie Crumpton, our facilitator, made a point to name “lament of the community” as the first important step in a process which names, addresses and seeks to dismantle racism.

This gathering took place in the chapel where Michael Brown’s picture had been placed on the altar, surrounded by candles of remembrance, only weeks before. This call for lament took me back to the story of Rachel.

What were Rachel’s dreams for her children? What were the dreams of Lesley McSpadden, the mother of Michael Brown, and the many other black mothers in America, who have had to hold the lifeless bodies of their children? Other black mothers feel the need to impose curfews on their children for their own safety, or teach them how to move and talk around those who hold privilege and power. They know too well that their children will be viewed as threats; guilty until proven innocent. These are the realities shared by mothers of black children. Hearing the lament of these mothers in a space created to dismantle racism, I was again confronted with my own white privilege, as a mother of white children, who will most likely be given the benefit of the doubt.

So I sit here early in the Advent season, looking at my own white privilege, and I must challenge myself to reflect further on the points of connection between the two stories. These are the questions I am sitting with:

  • Who holds privilege?
  • Who is profiled? Why?
  • How is lament important, and how might I be tempted to rush past it?
  • How does lifting up Rachel’s voice affect my reading of the rest of the story?
  • How can devastation, lament and hope be held together?
  • How does listening deeply to others and myself empower me to deal with my white privilege?

This Advent season, I desire to be a co-creator with Spirit and my own community in creating space for justice, peace and hope to be birthed in our midst.

Christi Hoover Seidel is the director of children and youth programs at Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster, Pa.

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