Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage (Jeremiah 31: 13-17) transports me to my brother Dave’s living room in Woodstock, Georgia, a few years back, when I was there for the funeral of his sister-in-law, Earline, aka Stuff. The house was filled with 20 or so family members and we were getting ready to go to the funeral home for the service, when my cell phone rang. I answered it and couldn’t hear very well with all the conversations surrounding me. I thought the man said he was Randy Kinnon, but after a couple of “Who did you say?” moments, I realized it was Ray McKinnon, the actor/director/producer from Arkansas. I had been playing phone tag with him about an idea I had to bring him to the college where I was working, to show his Oscar winning film The Accountant and talk about family farm issues. I was more than a might nervous talking with him, and scrambled off into a quiet room where I could hear, and I bought a little time with introductory small talk so I could fish through my wallet for the set of talking points I had written down just for this opportunity. I only remember one of the talking points. I wanted to ask him about the fight scene between him and Billy Bob Thornton in the movie Chrystal. I told him that Chrystal was in my mind the most powerful artistic expression of grief I had ever scene, and this particular scene in the movie was especially moving, as the drunken fight was juxtaposed against the haunting ballad, Red Rocking Chair, sung by the title character Chrystal, played by McKinnon’s wife Lisa Blount. Ray McKinnon was glad to talk with me about the movie and the scene, how they set it up, why it was gratifying to him, etc. I have thought about Chrystal this fall, since I heard about Lisa Blount’s death in October at the age of 53. Hers is indeed the saddest portrayal of grief in any movie I’ve ever seen, distilling as it does the experience of a mother who has spent 16 years in grief over the loss of her little boy, refusing to be consoled.
I thought of Chrystal today when reading the passage in Jeremiah. Tucked in between two promises of comfort and hope, where the prophet speaks of women dancing and priests enjoying abundance, where people rejoice upon a return to the land and rewards of a faithful life, he paints a sharp contrast with an image of the broken people of Israel walking their trail of tears into exile, passing alongside the roadside grave of Rachel, who had died generations earlier while giving birth to Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin. Jeremiah gives voice to Rachel, who weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted. The gospel writer Matthew hears this defiant refusal of consolation and inserts it into the midst of his Christmas story. We don’t usually hear Rachel’s voice in our pageants; she is usually drowned out by the angels singing to shepherds and the animal noises of a makeshift stable nursery. But her voice is there, smack in the middle of all the faithful people coming to Bethlehem to adore the newborn king of angels. Rachel, representing all the mothers who missed out on the angel warning and did not escape the fate of Herod’s slaughter of innocence, was neither joyful nor triumphant. There must have been many well-meaning people coming to these mothers with words of assurance and hope and comfort. But Rachel defiantly refused their well-wishes. There was to be no easy consolation for her in the bleak mid-winter of dark grief, as the frost wind made her heart moan and the empty cribs stood hard as iron.
Rachel resonates with the African American experiences voiced in the Negro National Anthem: Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died. . .We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered. Here in Advent week three, the week of Joy, we do well to remember the defiant Rachels of our world who are still treading that path, still waiting for the blessing to flow far as the curse of grief is found. We do well to remember that there are places in our lives where innocence has been slaughtered and will not easily be revived. Advent faith has to be larger than ready answers and southern comforts. When I think of the losses of my own life that still ache, I think of the line from the old hymn, Come Ye Disconsolate: earth has no sorrows that heaven cannot heal. And I realize Rachel’s defiant truth that there are indeed some sorrows that will not be healed this side of heaven.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.