Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sunday canticles: Jeremiah 14:17-21 (Lent 1)

I wanted to continue today with some notes in my series on the Sunday Matins canticles in the Benedictine Office, as have now come to a new set of these for Lent.

The Benedictine Office, you will recall, uses three canticles in the third Nocturn on Sundays, and the first of these during Lent and Passiontide is from Jeremiah 14:17-21.

Here is the text laid out as for liturgical use:

Jeremiah 14:17-21
1. Deducant oculi mei lacrimam per noctem et diem, et non taceant
Let my eyes shed down tears night and day, and let them not cease
2. quoniam contritione magna contrita est virgo filia populi mei, plaga pessima vehementer.
because the virgin daughter of my people is afflicted with a great affliction, with an exceeding grievous evil
3. Si egressus fuero ad agros, ecce occisi gladio: et si introiero in civitatem, ecce attenuati fame.
If I go forth into the fields, behold the slain with the sword: and if I enter into the city, behold them that are consumed with famine.
4. Propheta quoque et sacerdos abierunt in terram quam ignorabant.
The prophet also and the priest are gone into a land which they knew not. 
5. Numquid projiciens abjecisti Judam? aut Sion abominata est anima tua?
Hast thou utterly cast away Juda, or hath thy soul abhorred Sion?
6. quare ergo percussisti nos ita ut nulla sit sanitas?
why then hast thou struck us, so that there is no healing for us?
7. Exspectavimus pacem, et non est bonum: et tempus curationis, et ecce turbatio.
we have looked for peace, and there is no good: and for the time of healing, and behold trouble. 
8. Cognovimus, Domine, impietates nostras, iniquitates patrum nostrorum, quia peccavimus tibi.
We acknowledge, O Lord, our wickedness, the iniquities of our fathers, because we have sinned against thee.

9. Ne des nos in opprobrium, propter nomen tuum, neque facias nobis contumeliam solii gloriæ tuæ:
Give us not to be a reproach, for thy name' s sake, and do not disgrace in us the throne of thy glory:
10. recordare, ne irritum facias fœdus tuum nobiscum
remember, break not thy covenant with us. 

Scriptural context

This canticle comes from a chapter that is a dialogue between God and Jeremiah: God has sentenced Israel to famine, drought and destruction because of its sins, particularly idolatry; Jeremiah is pleading for a remission of the sentence in the face of the suffering being experienced.  

Jeremiah's pleas for mercy, though are unsuccessful: the prophecy was given around 587, just before the sack of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon.  The reason God gives for his refusla to relent is that the people have refused to acknowledge their sin and repent, and instead have been relying on false prophets who have assured them that it isn't their fault and things will be fine.   

The canticle describes the consequences, in the fall of Jerusalem (the virgin daughter) and horrors that followed:

"If I go forth into the fields, behold the slain with the sword: and if I enter into the city, behold them that are consumed with famine."


There are some messages in the canticle that have great contemporary relevance, in the face of those who seem determined to deny that the Church is collapsing in the West, or that many of the reforms and directions implemented in the name of Vatican II have proved a disaster.

And the canticle points to one of the key causes of this denialism: those who should have been giving leadership (the priests and prophets of verse 4, as it is arranged for liturgical use) have proved to be hirelings, not shepherds, and run off elsewhere.

The canticle ends with an injunction to confess our sins before it is too late.

Pope John Paul II on the canticle

In the (OF) Liturgy of the Hours, this canticle is said at morning prayer on Friday in the third week, and Pope John Paul II gave a General Audience on it in that context back in 2002.  Here is what he had to say:

1. The Prophet Jeremiah raises to heaven from within his own historical context a bitter and deeply felt song (14,17-21). We have just heard it recited as an invocation, which the Liturgy of Lauds presents to us on the day when we commemorate the Lord's death: Friday. The context in which this lamentation arises is represented by a scourge that often strikes the land of the Middle East: drought. However, with this natural disaster, the prophet interweaves another, the tragedy of war which is equally appalling: "If I walk out into the field, look! those slain by the sword; if I enter the city look! those consumed by hunger". Unfortunately, the description is tragically present in so many regions of our planet.

2. Jeremiah enters the scene with his face bathed in tears:  he weeps uninterruptedly for "the daughter of his people", namely for Jerusalem. Indeed, according to a well-known biblical symbol, the city is represented with a feminine image, "the daughter of Zion". The prophet participates intimately in the "great destruction" and in the "incurable wound" of his people (v. 17). Often, his words are marked by sorrow and tears, because Israel does not allow herself to be involved in the mysterious message that suffering brings with it. In another passage, Jeremiah exclaims:  "If you do not listen to this in your pride, I will weep in secret many tears; my eyes will run with tears for the Lord's flock, led away to exile" (13,17).

3. The reason for the prophet's heart-rending prayer is to be found, as has been said, in two tragic events:  the sword and hunger, that is, war and famine (Jer 14,18). We are therefore in a tormented historical situation and the portrait of the prophet and the priest, guardians of the Lord's Word who "wander about the land distraught" (ibid.) is striking.

The second part of the Canticle (cf. vv. 19-21) is no longer an individual lament in the first person singular, but a collective supplication addressed to God:  "Why have you struck us a blow that cannot be healed?" (v. 19). In fact, in addition to the sword and hunger, there is a greater tragedy, that of the silence of God who no longer reveals himself and seems to have retreated into his heaven, as if disgusted with humanity's actions. The questions addressed to him are therefore tense and explicit in a typically religious sense:  "Have you cast off Judah completely?", or "Is Zion loathsome to you?" (v. 19). Now they feel lonely and forsaken, deprived of peace, salvation and hope. The people, left to themselves, feel as if they were isolated and overcome by terror.

Isn't this existential solitude perhaps the profound source of all the dissatisfaction we also perceive in our day? So much insecurity, so many thoughtless reactions originate in our having abandoned God, the rock of our salvation.

4. Now comes the turning-point:  the people return to God and raise an intense prayer to him. First of all, they recognize their own sin with a brief but heartfelt confession of guilt: "We recognize, O Lord, our wickedness,... that we have sinned against you" (v. 21). Thus God's silence was provoked by man's rejection. If the people will be converted and return to the Lord, God will also show himself ready to go out to meet and embrace them.

Finally, the prophet uses two fundamental words:  "remember" and "covenant" (v. 21). God is asked by his people to "remember", that is, to return to the line of his generous kindness, which he had so often shown in the past with crucial interventions to save Israel. God is asked to remember that he bound himself to his people by a covenant of fidelity and love. Precisely because of this covenant, the people can be confident that the Lord will intervene to set them free and save them.
The commitment he assumed, the honour of his "name" and the fact that he was present in the temple, "the throne of his glory", impel God - after his judgement of sin and his silence - to draw close to his people once again to give them life, peace and joy.

With the Israelites, therefore, we too can be sure that the Lord will not give us up for good but, after every purifying trial, will return to make "his face to shine upon us, and be gracious to us ... and give us peace" as the priestly blessing mentioned in Numbers says (6,25-26).

5. To conclude, we can associate Jeremiah's plea with the moving exhortation that St Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage in the third century, addressed to the Christians of that city. In a time of persecution, St Cyprian exhorted his faithful to implore the Lord. This prayer is not identical to the prophet's supplication for it does not include a confession of sin as the persecution is not so much a punishment for sin, but a participation in Christ's Passion. Nevertheless, it is as urgent an entreaty as Jeremiah's. St Cyprian writes, "What we must do is beg the Lord with united and undivided hearts, without pause in our entreaty, with confidence that we shall receive, seeking to appease Him with cries and tears as befits those who find themselves amid the lamentations of the fallen and the trembling of the remnant still left, amidst the host of those who lie faint and savaged and the tiny band of those who stand firm. We must beg that peace be promptly restored, that help be quickly brought to our places of concealment and peril, that those things be fulfilled which the Lord vouchsafes to reveal to his servants:  the restoration of His church, the certitude of our salvation, bright skies after rain, after darkness light, after wild storms a gentle calm. We must beg that the Father send his loving aid to his children, that God in his majesty perform now as he has so often His wonderful works" (cf. Letter 11,8 in The Letters of St Cyprian of Carthage, vol. I, p. 80, in the series Ancient Christian Writers, Newman Press, Ramsay, N.J. 1984).

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