Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

What if the center cannot hold, as William Butler Yeats feared in his famous poem, “The Second Coming”?

July 1, 2012

First Reading
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Commentary on Lamentations 3:22-33

What if the center cannot hold, as William Butler Yeats feared in his famous poem, “The Second Coming”?

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

Yeats’s poem reflects the situation in post-World War I Europe, but it seems to apply equally well today and perhaps also in the time of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem reflected in the book of Lamentations.

With our text we are at the center of that book, and we hear a kind of measured hope in the midst of that great destruction, but can the center hold? True, the poet confesses the creed: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end,” but it seems that, given the terror of the siege of Jerusalem, he has had to remind himself of it (see 3:21). And the confidence soon gives way to a kind of resignation: “It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth…to give one’s cheek to the smiter.” Nevertheless, confidence and confession return: “For the Lord will not reject forever….[F]or he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.”

The poet believed those things, at least here in the middle of the book, but, to take up our refrain once more, can the center hold? The last verse of the book of Lamentations calls this hope into terrible question: “unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure” (5:22). Though the Hebrew word for “reject” is not the same in 3:31 and 5:22, the notion is the same: The Lord will not reject forever…unless he does!

To hear that is to hear the terror of theological nihilism that haunts Lamentations. What if the center cannot hold? What if God cannot hold? God’s steadfast love endures forever, says the creed; but what if it does not? What if God has “utterly rejected us”? This would be not only the death of “us,” but the death of God. Can that be what is faced by those hunkered down in the destroyed “city of God”?

Our text marks not only the creedal center of Israel’s faith, but the literary center of the book of Lamentations. Chapter 3 holds up words of cautious hope, surrounded on each side by two chapters of deepest lament. And the book finally dribbles away with the horrible possibility that the whole God/Israel thing might be at an end. What if the center cannot hold?

We have heard this kind of thing before, of course — “even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil” (Psalm 23:4). We cannot understand the significance of the words of hope in the Psalter (“The Lord is my shepherd”) if we do not hear them uttered in the midst of the darkest valley — just as our confession in Lamentations is affirmed in the midst of the terrifying threat of the loss of all meaning, the loss of the very divine self. One might ask the poet of Lamentations, what is the sense of prayer at all, given the outburst, “You have wrapped yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through” (3:43)? Indeed, “things fall apart,” even the possibility of prayer.

And yet, our poet holds on: “The Lord is good to those who wait for him” (3:25). But it can be a very long wait! The overconfident preacher will lead people astray here: “It’s okay. Just believe. It’s only a brief test. The Lord will come through” — maybe…unless, unless the despair of Lamentations is right, unless “you have utterly rejected us.” Not that it is the task of the preacher to produce such doubt. No, life produces doubt. The task of the preacher is to name it, to allow it its place, and to put faith where it belongs as the amazing “nevertheless” — “Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand” (Psalm 73:23).

Faith here will not entail believing the unbelievable out of sheer cussed individual perseverance; it will be holding on to the gift once given, despite whatever present realities call it into question. As for the poet in Lamentations, such faith will require the creedal and communal memory of what God has done, calling that work into the present through prayer and proclamation. If it takes a village to raise a child, it will certainly take a congregation to support or restore my faith — to recite it to me in the creed, to proclaim it to me in the sermon, to sing it to me in the liturgy and hymns.

Left to myself, the center will never hold. Even together, we must admit there will be times when it appears that all is lost. But then, this voice: “The Lord is good to those who wait for him….[God] does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” Hold on to this for me, dear preacher. Believe it with me. Let me hear it anew.

And take me at last to the One who gave his cheeks to the smiter on my behalf, who suffered divine abandonment for my sake, who knew firsthand the terror of feeling “utterly rejected” by God and God’s people. This will not be a simple “fix” to the issues of our text. It will not raise me to the clouds beyond the troubles of the world; it will bring God into the depths to share my terror and unbelief and thus give me, in Christ, a place to stand — even when the center cannot hold.

1William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, definitive ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1956), 184-185