Texts: Joel 2. 23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4. 6-8, 16-18; Luke 18. 9-14
The book of Joel is amongst the most enigmatic works of the Hebrew bible: ‘enigmatic’ because it reflects on an event so disturbing that the authors seem hardly able to speak its name. From the start of the book to its end, one may read about the dark and terrible effects which that event had in the minds and hearts of the people. You can read, also, about the prophet’s attempts to heal that darkness, the way in which he tried to soothe the wounded and comfort the despairing. But you will not discover, with any real certainty, what the event was that actually caused it all. Some interpreters say that the land was overtaken by a horde of locusts, a veritable army of insects, so large that every living thing, plant or animal, was destroyed in its wake. Others say that the book reflects upon one of the climactic invasions of Hebrew territories by the Assyrians, the Babylonians or the Greeks, after the manner of so many of the other writings in the Hebrew canon. But how is one to decide between the two? For if the authors are writing about locusts, they describe them with the aid of an elaborate and chilling military metaphor. And if they are writing about an invading army, the image of swarming locusts is invoked to describe its horrible effects on the population of Israel. But, in the end, the honest reader is left with a sense of radical undecidability. Something happened. Something truly awful. But we can’t really know what that something was. All we are left with are startling images and the emotions they evoke, traces of a trauma which cuts so deeply that the authors seem unwilling to name it directly, even to themselves. It is too painful.
This is often the way with a trauma, which I understand to be an unexpected event, a wounding which is visited upon us from somewhere ‘beyond’ our usual frame of reference, a happening which so interrupts the ‘normal’ flow of our lives that we can scarcely believe it has happened. One day we are healthy and happy, the next day we have cancer. One moment we are happily married. The next we are inexplicably alone. We are engaged in the one of the normal tasks at work, sending a fax, say, when suddenly an aeroplane crashes into the building and explodes. How does one integrate such experiences? How does one find a language to explain what has happened, even to oneself? It is difficult. Very, very difficult. Because what has happened seems impossible. It could not have happened, and certainly does not happen in that person’s world. And because the impossible is also impossible to name, the only means by which a traumatised person may begin to integrate their trauma, to make it somehow real, is to draw an analogy with something else that person knows. To paint a picture with colours they have already seen. To tell a story with characters they’re already familiar with. To make a song with a tune they’ve been humming all their lives. That’s why the writers of Joel spoke about their own trauma in terms of locusts and armies. These were things they already knew about. Devastating things. And they provided the images by which the new trauma might be approached but not approached. Described but certainly not tamed or domesticated. Acknowledged as real, but never finally mastered or integrated into their known world.
But now I want to note something even more enigmatic. The principle name in Joel for the unnamable trauma which had befallen the people is not, in fact, either locusts or invading armies but “THE DAY OF THE LORD”. Listen as I locate the places where this intriguing phrase is found:
Alas for the day! The day of the Lord is near: as destruction from the Almighty it comes. Is not food cut off before our eyes, joy and gladness from the house of God (1. 15-16).
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it in near - a day of darkness and gloom (2. 1-2).
The earth quakes, the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The Lord utters his voice at the head of his army . . . Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed - who can endure it? (2. 10-11).
The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape . . . and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls (2. 31-32).
Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near . . . The Lord roars from Zion . . . the heavens and the earth shake. But the Lord is a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel (3. 14, 16).
In that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, the hills shall flow with milk, and all the stream beds of Judah shall stream with water; a fountain shall come forth from the house of the Lord . . . Judah shall be inhabited forever, and Jerusalem to all generations (3. 18-20).
What I find most revealing about this ‘day of the Lord’ is that it names a trauma, but not only a trauma. It is also the name which Joel gives to the experience of God’s salvation, that moment of exodus and of freedom that is the beginning of a new age when the Spirit of God’s peace and justice will fall upon all people, from the least of them to the greatest (2. 28-29). ‘The day of the Lord’ is therefore - somewhat paradoxically - both a trauma and a healing, a judgement of sin and an invitation to new life. Indeed, one might say that the trauma and its healing are mysteriously joined here, that they become the inside and the outside of the same experience. One might even say that the Book of Joel encourages us to believe that the people of Israel might never have retained their sense of God as saviour without their having been wounded by God as warrior and judge.
Emmanuel Lévinas, a Lithuanian-Jewish philosopher who died in 1995, wrote about these things more profoundly than anyone I know, but he gave them a particular spin. Lévinas argued that human beings are so self-absorbed that the only way in which God can get our attention is to make us suffer in a very specific way: to take us hostage as sufferers of another person’s suffering. Lévinas, whose parents were killed in the Nazi death-camps, believed that God comes to claim us through a fundamental disruption of the relatively ‘safe’ worlds most of us inhabit. By confronting us with the face of suffering in another human being, God calls us to be transformed. In the encounter with another’s suffering, says Lévinas, we are substituted for this other: we feel his or her pain in our own bodies, and we know ourselves to be responsible in some way. Our peaceful lives are therefore peaceful no more. The world changes, and we are changed with it.
This accounts, I think, for the way in which even the most cold-hearted Australian observer sometimes changes their view of asylum-seekers or Aborigines when they actually meet such folk face-to-face, when they finally see and hear their stories through words, tears and the lines of suffering etched on another’s face. When encountered by the face of another’s suffering, and not just rhetoric about it, we are confronted with a gaze that makes an absolute and irrefusable claim on us. It cuts through the right-wing rubbish about individuals and individual responsibility and calls us to make an ethical response: to act as if it is we, ourselves, who are responsible for this other’s suffering. This, according to Lévinas, is a call from God to justice, and it comes to us in the real flesh-and-blood face of the neighbour.
As always, there is much more that could be said. But I will close with this. The faith of Christ is about the redemptive power of wounds. It is about apostles locked up in prison cells, their lives being poured out as a libation for others, who see visions of God, and angels, and heavenly rewards. It is about hateful people like tax-collectors, exploiters and thieves par excellence, tripping over their wounds and their wounding of others, only to find that God has welcomed and healed them by that very movement. It is about congregations who are unjustly deprived of their churches who nevertheless discover that through poverty of spirit comes a richness in faith. The faith of Christ is about people who take up their cross daily, that unique cross which God has chosen for them, and carrying that cross as though it were a pearl of great price or a treasure found in a field. Because that’s what the cross of Christ is, for Christians: an instrument of suffering in which the very glory of God’s love lays concealed. So I say this to everyone here who has suffered, or is suffering, a trauma (and I know that you are!) It is a difficult saying, but true nevertheless. Love your wound and befriend it. For it is probably an angel of God in disguise.