Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

08 December 2012


I write about Christmas a lot, so I frequently find myself searching for a verse I know I saw in the story of the nativity. Unlike my Christian students, who, drawing on years of Awana, can spit back Book-Chapter-Verse at the mere mention of a phrase from the B-I-B-L-E, I—having read the Bible for the first time in my thirties, when I was already on the falling slope of the memorization peak—have to rely on concordances and Google and BibleGateway.com to find what I need and even then often end up going page by page through an entire book before I finally arrive where I know I’ve been in Scripture.

So, every year I leaf past a little set-in passage from Jeremiah quoted in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth:

A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.” (2:18)

Ramah. What’s that? I ask myself as I speed past to the frankincense and myrrh. Then I zoom in for a closer look and am again surprised: Women weeping and mourning and refusing to be comforted? What’s that doing in there among the good news of great joy? And every year I have to remind myself again of Herod’s vicious jealousy after the magi’s visit that resulted in the murder of all the little boys he thought might be the King they were looking for.

Right on the cursed heel of the Christmas story—or right in the midst of it, for those who eclipse the whole story to include the visit of the magi when Jesus was a toddler in with what happened on the night of his birth—this consideration not of the good news of great joy but the misery and loss that preceded it. The Israelites’ repeated loss of a place to belong to. Their loss of their children in war after war. Their loss of God himself, who, as it must have seemed during those generations of suffering that preceded the coming of the Messiah, had forgotten all about them.

Where are you, Lord? the psalmists and prophets wail, and the word Ramah leaping out of the page before me sounds like a lament, echoing their plea. 

What’s this Ramah business doing in the Christmas story? I wonder crankily, briefly, as I speed on to the happier verses.

All this to say that sadness and suffering seem incompatible with Christmas, so much so that I can hardly think about one in terms of the other. Even though I often read accounts of people with the Christmas blues. And even though, as the victim of crime once many years ago during the holiday season, I fight, on the anniversary of the crime, a yearly attack of post-traumatic stress symptoms that amount to just such weeping and mourning and refusal to be comforted. Indeed, for me and many others—those recently widowed, for example, or others away from family on this family-oriented holiday and just simply those who are, for whatever reason, lonely—sadness at Christmastime is often inescapable.

Today, I’d like to consider Ramah with a bit more reverence and attention. Matthew is quoting Jeremiah 31:15, an ominous verse in the midst of passage full of promises emphatically from the Lord. (Jeremiah repeats words like “This is what the Lord says” or “declares the Lord” twenty-two times in Chapter 31’s thirty-eight verses.) “I will come to give rest to Israel,” the Lord promises (31:2). “I have loved you with an everlasting love” and “I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt” (31:3-4). Here’s one I especially like: “your work will be rewarded” (31:16). And how about this one: “there is hope for your descendants” (31:17)?

In this single chapter of Jeremiah, the Father promises his children a new covenant of forgiveness—“I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (31:34)—and he assures them, “I have surely heard Ephraim’s moaning. . . Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight?. . . my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him” (31:18, 20).

Listen to the joys God has planned for us:

“Again you will take up your timbrels
and go out to dance with the joyful.
Again you will plant vineyards
on the hills of Samaria;
the farmers will plant them
and enjoy their fruit.
There will be a day when watchmen cry out
on the hills of Ephraim,
‘Come, let us go up to Zion,
to the Lord our God.’” (31:4-6)

Dancing! Joyful! Enjoying the wine, the fruit, the excitement of being with God! And there’s more! Hear it:

“They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion;
they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord
the grain, the new wine and the olive oil,
the young of the flocks and herds.
They will be like a well-watered garden,
and they will sorrow no more.
Then young women will dance and be glad,
young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into gladness;
I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.” (31:12-13)

Joy! Rejoice! Wine! Dancing! Comfort! An end to sorrow! Gladness! In response, the Lord urges, we are to “Sing with joy for Jacob; shout for the foremost of the nations” (31:7). Our joy will be so full, so big, so complete, says the Lord, that there will no longer even be a need to spread the good news of it:

No longer will they teach their neighbor,
or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. (31:34)

Nevertheless, all these promises notwithstanding, the part of this Jeremiah passage that Matthew takes us to in his account of the Christmas story—in his account of the realization of all these promises in the form of the Christchild, the Messiah—is those women’s mourning and weeping. 

Right from the get-go as we enter the Christmas season, Ramah is a reminder to us, as it would have been to any Jews among the gospel writers’ original audience, that the coming of the Messiah is not going to be anything like what the Israelites expected and hoped for. The Advent of the Messiah, the good news of great joy, does not mean the end of sin or sorrow or suffering—at least not immediately. Indeed, it would occasion an increase in suffering for many believers in the generations that followed.

Jesus’ own circumstances at birth evidence this continuance of suffering. A very pregnant woman, perhaps already in the throes of labor, consigned to a barn to give birth. A manure-crusted feed trough for the newborn’s bassinet. From his earliest years Jesus was the victim of a death threat that turned his family into refugees. Where are you, Lord? had to have been often in the minds of Jesus’ own family as they moved from Bethlehem to Egypt and back to their hometown.

Rereading the Ramah passage this year resonated especially with an interview I recently heard on NPR with Hilary Mantel, the most recent winner, for the second time, of the United Kingdom’s highest honor for contemporary novelists, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction.

Perhaps it was the mixture of hope and pain in this woman’s earnest, compassionate-sounding voice—she sounds a lot like Mrs. Potts, the lovable animated teapot in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast—that moved me. Or perhaps it was simply the fact that her particular loss and hope resonated with my own from decades ago, before my advent as an adult believer. Mantel spoke about her most recent historical novel, the second in a series about Henry VIII’s reign, and her decades-long struggle with endometriosis, an unremitting menstrual flow for which there appeared to be no medical solution.

She’s just like that woman who, after twelve years of bleeding, touched the hem of Jesus’ garment and was healed—only she wasn’t healed. I thought as I listened to her tell it. And the yearning in her voice took on a new dimension.

Then she told the story of her loss of faith. When Terry Gross asked her why she had left her childhood religion as a twelve-year-old, she said simply, “I no longer had faith. I lost my belief in a day or two. Not just in Catholicism, but, in the whole thing.”

For many years she didn’t miss what Gross referred to as “that presence” because, as she said, “Other things came in to fill the gap.” But when Gross asked her if she still felt the same way, she responded, with heartrending hesitations and gaps of silence, “No, I don’t feel the same way now. Uh, I, I know, I envy people who have faith, and I think it’s possible I may regain it…”

Her words—her envy of those with faith, her hope in the possibility that she might regain hers—and the gaps between them and the raw longing in her voice at that moment captured exactly how I’d felt throughout my decades of atheism. Bereft but, somehow below and around the feeling of abandonment by God, hopeful. On some level, despite my conviction that it couldn’t be so, I hoped for the promises of the ancients to be true, for God to return.

Where are you, Lord? Mantel’s voice prayed its groan of a prayer, surely the prayer of those poor women at Ramah.

Advent is a time not only to celebrate the promises fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah but to remember the loss and suffering—the almost hopeless hope—to which these promises respond. To consider that hope and, as those who have already received what has been promised, to rejoice all the more sincerely.

01 December 2012


The other night on the way home from my evening course, I was surfing the radio stations for something Christmassy and happened upon that most beloved of holiday traditions among us Christians, a rousing reason-for-the-season lecture.

The host had already introduced his invited expert, who launched into an explication of the complex mishmash of history and tradition that comprise Santa Claus—a fiction, he railed, of store owners, Washington Irving, and the Dutch. It’s important, he argued, to deconstruct this material for your kids and extract from the materialistic frenzy the true and worthy stuff of Christmas: the real Saint Nicholas of yore—a kind-hearted, unicefy sort of guy there was nothing wrong with admiring, even if we don’t agree with the whole business of calling people saints—and, of course, the real Reason-for-the-Season, Jesus himself.

Here and there in the course of the lecture, the radio host interjected the story of his and his wife’s attempts to deal with the “problem of Christmas” in their own family. Despite their holiest efforts to make the holiday about Jesus, though, he confessed, by early October their kids were already magneting lengthy Christmas lists to the refrigerator door. And with this confession, the wholesome jollity of his Christian talk radio host voice broke open for me, for an instant, upon the sad question underlying all such discussions.

“Am I a bad parent?” he asked his expert plaintively.

The expert was too caught up in Sinterklaas and the Reformation to respond, but, once the question was out there, zinging through radio reality into the ears and minds of parents all over the world, I could hear nothing else.

It’s a question all too frequently present in my brain—not just at Christmas but throughout the year. Often I pray it. Occasionally, I say it out loud—to my husband or to a trusted fellow parent. (I have learned, over the years, never to ask this question of childless friends, who—having had no parenting trials of their own—are all too eager to confirm my worst fears.) I’ve been asking this question, with increasing frequency, ever since my two daughters were born, and, though Charlotte and Lulu are in college now and will soon be out on their own, I suspect I will be asking it for some years to come.

And, unless I’m abnormal (another question often in my brain), Am I a bad parent? is a question probably in some, if not most, other parents’ brains fairly often as well.

It was surely in Mary’s brain with fair regularity as Jesus was growing up, although the biblical writers shrewdly omit that mystifying part of Jesus’ human biography from their accounts. In any case, all that pondering Mary did in her heart early on has, for me, the familiar tenor of parental worry.

We do know that later, when Jesus was long since an adult, his earthly mother was concerned enough for his sanity that she enlisted her other sons’ help in trying to fetch him home. I envision her thinking of him and his brothers—as I am certain I will keep thinking until Charlotte and Lulu have children of their own and can take over the job for me—Did I do the right thing? Are they going to understand this world the way I want them to? Will they love God and their neighbors as themselves—or at least try to? I spend a good part of my conversations with God pray-worrying the bigger question beneath these questions: Will Charlotte and Lulu be romping with the dogs and arguing at the dinner table and assembling gingerbread houses with me and Jesus throughout eternity?

The burden of parenthood, it seems to me, is weighty enough without adding the impossible requirement that we turn happy holidays into tricky history lectures and expect our kids to value only the pious truths of the nativity story in lieu of the popguns! bicycles! roller skates! drums! of the popular versions of that story that have evolved since Jesus lived among us. And, in my view, attempting to dissociate children’s experience of Christmas from the jolly jingle-belling going on all around them misses the point of the Christmas lists and hoped for presents and tree-trimming and bright colored lights on the houses and songs sung and money spent entirely—not to mention the Reason for the Season.

Christmas is, and should be, a celebration! Jesus’ birth is good news of great joy—the gospel of gospels—the best news the world has ever received in its complex and ugly history. I love it that the coming of God to our world has become, over the centuries, across the nations, a big party—such a big deal, so glimmering with promise, that even nonbelievers celebrate it!

Helping our kids celebrate this good news, in whatever ways engage them the most, is good parenting, in my view. And the yearnings evident in those lists on the fridge followed by the mad ripping open of presents under the tree on Christmas morning offer us a rich and rare opportunity to help our kids experience the important spiritual connection between longing for something good—the best thing they can think of—and receiving it from the best Parent of all parents: a way out of our own miserable meanness. A Savior, who is Christ the King!

Kids are, as Jesus points out on occasion, the best theologians. They get it about God. We do need to draw their attention (and our own) to the reason for the celebrating, of course—the story of God sending his Son to our world—and we should do it not just during the Christmas season but throughout the year and throughout their lives.

Stopping or even slowing the festivities to parse the party and eradicate its heathenness is counterproductive. As the believers among the celebrators—as those in the know about what it is we’re actually celebrating—we Christians need to up the excitement, not put on the brakes.