To what can I liken or compare you,
O daughter Jerusalem?
What example can I show you for your comfort, virgin daughter Zion?
For great as the sea is your downfall;
who can heal you?
The fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian army is in the Old Testament like the crucifixion of Jesus in the New Testament. It is an incident of horrific violence visited upon the helpless. The story is one of betrayal, or at least the betrayal of everything we had expected of God.
The prophets had warned that it could happen, that God might punish his people for their infidelity. They had habitually and systematically neglected the widows, orphans, disabled and aliens. Their rulers had struck alliances with foreign rulers, compromising their own principles. They had regarded their religious duties with casual contempt. Judah, and its capital Jerusalem, seemed no more sacred or holy than any other capital or nation. If their religion was "Jewish" it made little practical difference in the way they conducted their affairs.
Their prophets had warned them that their "exceptionalism" meant nothing in God's sight when their faith in God meant nothing to them. They had not listened.
But did their infidelity deserve the rape, looting, burning and desecration that Jerusalem suffered? Why did the same helpless innocents who had suffered the neglect of their prosperous neighbors have to suffer the violence of foreign invasion?
The prophet who wrote the Book of Lamentations does not echo the earlier prophets and their warnings. He does not say, "I told you so!" He simply records the grief of the city. He wonders with them, "Has God abandoned us?" and "Can there be a future?"
Tens of thousands of cities have fallen before invading armies in the history of the world. Even as I write I am hearing about the assault of another city, Fallujah in Iraq. Once again the innocent are suffering and there is little anyone can do to stop the violence. Caught between competing armies they can receive assistance only by unreliable airdrops of food, medicine and supplies.
On Saturdays, we Catholics like to recall our devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The reading from Lamentations must remind us of Mary's suffering when Jesus was crucified. Saint Matthew suggests she is the New Jerusalem who reveals to the magi the newborn King of the Jews; they could not find him in King Herod's old city.
But the new city, like the old one, is subject to grief. No sooner had the magi departed than Mary fled with Joseph and Jesus into exile.
Christians are not, and should not expect to be, exempt from grief. We must thank God for the privilege of weeping with Mary, even as we thank God that she mourns with us.