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Prophet of Sorrow—and Hope

This year the Armenian Church liturgical calendar designates August 24 as the feast of St. Jeremiah: one of the major prophets of the Bible.

His life straddled the 7th and 6th centuries before Christ—making him a contemporary of the Athenian lawgiver Solon.  Jeremiah received his prophetic calling in a time of great promise: the reign of the godly king Josiah, during which a lost book of Moses (eventually known as Deuteronomy) was re-discovered, and a movement of spiritual renewal awakened among the Hebrew people.

But the pious king died in battle; his successors were weak and profligate; and Jeremiah’s generation saw its worst fears realized: the conquest of their holy city, Jerusalem, and the bitter exile of a nation from its homeland.

Jeremiah documented his painful experiences in the Old Testament book of his name, as well as in the aptly titled book of Lamentations.  As a result, he became known to the ages as the “weeping prophet.”  Jeremiah’s vivid, sorrowful prophecies were picked up by the evangelist St. Matthew in his telling of Christ’s life (“Rachel weeping for her children” at Mt 2:17; “thirty pieces of silver” at Mt 27:9).  And we today derive the word “jeremiad”—meaning a long, mournful complaint—from this somber figure.

Yet even in defeat, Jeremiah was something other than a voice of doom.  To his people he spoke with the words of God; and they were words of hope, not despair.  Consider this inspiring passage by the prophet, in which God speaks to a dispirited nation in exile:

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord: plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  Then, when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord.  And I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord.  And I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.”  (Jer 29:11-14, NRSV)

Jeremiah’s words and example have held special meaning for Armenian Christians—as witness St. Gregory of Narek, who borrowed the title “Lamentations” for his own masterpiece of mystical poetry.  The similarities between the travails of Jeremiah’s time and the experiences of our own people hardly need to be enumerated.

The more important similarity, of course, is the spirit of hope, grounded in a loving, fatherly God, which allows people to endure, overcome, and live on—whether in the 6th century B.C., the 20th century A.D., or today.

—Christopher H. Zakian

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