Reflection for an Occasion of Common Lamentation and Prayer for Peace

07 Dec 2023

St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney, 6 December 2023

His name amongst Jews is Yirmeyahu (ירמיה), amongst Muslims Irmiyā, and for Christians Jeremiah “the weeping prophet” (c. 650-570 BC). To him are attributed the Books of Jeremiah, of Kings and of Lamentations. The last of these, from which we have just read (Lam 3:17-26), is a series of poetic laments, written in the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. The forces of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon laid violent siege to Jerusalem for thirty months, razed the Temple and public buildings, dissolved the Kingdom of Judah, and took the survivors into exile in Babylon.

Jeremiah’s laments articulate the depths of human anguish. His words are heartfelt reflections on humiliation and defeat, suffering and death, alienation and grief. “Behold, O Lord, for I am despised …Is any sorrow like my sorrow?… My eyes are spent with weeping; my soul is in tumult; my heart poured out in grief” (Lam 1:11-12; 2:11). Though a man of God, both priest and prophet, this didn’t insulate him from witnessing the worst of human behaviour. He wonders out loud how God could allow this. “The Lord has become like an enemy to Israel, destroyed all its palaces, laid ruin to its strongholds, and multiplied its mourning and lamentation” (Lam 2:2,5). And so, the holy man anguishes: “The law is no more; the prophets without vision… babes faint… and children die of hunger in the streets… the young and the old lie in the dust… enveloped by bitterness and tribulation, the Lord has made me to dwell in darkness, like the dead long forgotten… and though I cry for help, he shuts out my prayer… Have you utterly rejected us, O Lord?” (Lam 2:9-21; 3:5-15; 5:22)

Visceral hatred, unspeakable brutality and unbridled violence throw into question our very being and that of God Himself. For some, it strikes a terminal blow to their faith in both. Divine order and justice, God’s omnipotence and benevolence, all are brought into question by the horrors of terrorism and warfare. How can God allow the innocents to suffer? How can human beings do so?

We lament the loss, then, not just of loved ones and neighbours, of health and security, of order and future, but also of our own innocence, our faith in God and humanity, our trust in providence. War kills our ability to relate to the other as a brother or sister, our sense of a common humanity with common hopes and needs, our solidarity with the universe. Atrocity breeds righteous anger, righteous anger unrighteous, unrighteous anger reprisal. God fails to deliver justice and security we want, so we deliver vengeance. An endless cycle of retaliation. A hardening of hearts. A refusal to forgive. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” as we heard J. Robert Oppenheimer say in this year’s film, echoing the Hindu scriptures.

Are we doomed to become Death? Jeremiah thought not. Amidst his grief and anger, the prophet said “I call this to mind, and therefore I have hope: that the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, that his mercies never come to an end… The Lord is good to those who wait on him, to the soul that seeks him… He will not cast us off forever, and though he allows us grief, he will show us compassion… for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men.” (Lam 3:21-33) Whilst Jeremiah held nothing back in expressing his grief, he knew deep down that God cannot be behind these terrible things. No, God does not will our affliction and grief. He is not some uninterested deity who gets the universe going and then abandons it. However dark we might feel, the children of Abraham know that God is our cosmic lover, our intimate, our saviour.

Jeremiah knew this. “I called upon your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit; and you heard the cry of my appeal… You came near when I called and said, ‘Have no fear!’” (Lam 3:55-57) Such confidence in redemption comes not from wishful thinking but experience of God. And so, the prophet could say assuredly that God is always with us, that each night He carries us through the darkness and each morning enables our renewal. Our hope is not ultimately in human peace processes, important as these are; it is hope in the God who can change hearts, put forgiveness where there is vengeance, peace in place of turmoil, love instead of hate.

In the Christian calendar today is the Feast of St Nicholas of Myra who died on this day in the year 343 AD. He was a bishop, philanthropist and miracle-worker, a council father at Nicaea I and co-author of the Christian creed. Imprisoned and tortured under Diocletian, he was released under Constantine. His legendary habit of secret gift-giving, including leaving dowries for poor girls to save them from prostitution and slavery, sadly evolved into the commercialism and sentimentality of Santa Claus. But St Nicholas is, above all, a pointer to the birth at Christmas of that Prince of Peace for whom the weeping prophet Jeremiah longed and for whom our war-torn world still longs. What better Christmas present might we ask of God and Santa than peace?—peace in our hearts, peace in our relationships, peace in the land of Christ’s birth, peace in our world?

Welcome to an Occasion of Common Lamentation and Prayer for Peace – St Mary’s Cathedral Sydney, 6 December 2023

Dear Friends, Welcome to you all to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney this evening, as we gather in solidarity to lament the horrors and heartache unfolding in wars around the world and especially in the Holy Land, and to pray for a just and lasting peace.

I am Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP of Sydney and I salute their excellencies, my brother bishops:

His Lordship Most Rev. Michael McKenna, Chair of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Commission for Christian Unity and Inter-Religious Dialogue and Bishop of Bathurst, co-host with me of this prayer this evening;

His Excellency Most Rev. Daniel, Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Sydney and beyond;

His Excellency Archbishop Amel Nona, Bishop of St Thomas the Apostle Chaldean and Assyrian Catholic Diocese of Australia and New Zealand;

His Excellency Most Rev. Antoine-Charbel Tarabay OLM, Bishop of the Maronite Catholic Eparchy of St Maroun in Australia, New Zealand and Oceania;

His Lordship Most Rev. Richard Umbers, Auxiliary Bishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.

I also acknowledge the General Secretary of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Very Rev. Chris De Souza, with Mrs Louise Zavone; the President of Catholic Religious Australia, Very Rev. Peter Jones OSA; the Executive Director of the Archdiocesan Commission for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, Sr Giovanni Farquer RSJ; the Archdiocesan Vicar for Religious, Sr Elizabeth Delaney SGS; the Vice-Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, Professor Zlatko Skrbis, with several of his senior staff; clergy of the archdiocese and other dioceses; representatives of religious congregations and ecclesial movements; members of the Chancery and leaders of Church agencies; and members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.

An especially warm welcome to leaders or representatives of other Christian Churches, including: Rt Rev. Archimandrite Nabil Kachab, Vicar-General of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia and New Zealand; Rev. Dr Michael Giffin and Rev Dr Raymond Williamson of the Anglican Church of Australia; Rev. Yousef Fanous of the Coptic Orthodox Church; and Rev. Carmel Ieraci of the Uniting Church Australia.

From the NSW Ecumenical Council: Very Rev. Father Anastasios Bozikis, Rev. Dr James Collins and Mr David Rose.

From the Council of Christians and Jews: Mr Jolyon Bromley and Dr Emmanuel Nathan.

From the Columban Centre for Christian-Muslim Relations: Rev. Dr Patrick McInerney. From the Affinity Intercultural Foundation: Mr Ahmet Polat. From Advocates for Dignity: Mr Mehmet Saral.

Whatever our faith tradition, ours is a shared commitment to reverence every human person and to promote peace, first of all by raising our hearts to God, crying out to Him to bind us together and pour peace upon our world. Ours is also a shared commitment to build bridges between people of faith and to work together in practical ways for peacemaking.

Gathering, then, as brothers and sisters, let us now join in lamentation and in hope, praying that God, the creator of heaven and earth, may comfort those suffering the ravages of war, keep safe and send forth His peace.