Night and Thanksgiving

wiesel_night.jpgTo read Eli Wiesel’s Night on Thanksgiving is to enter into a world for which no gratitude is thinkable. No more proof that the fullness of the Kingdom of God is Not Yet can be found than in this personal testament of Job-like suffering and despair. No story could better reveal either the Evil of the Present Age or the dominance of Satan. Evil is winning. Good is losing The demonic is in control. Where is God?  How can St. Paul’s admonition “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” apply? After reading this story how can we  “know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him”?

Throughout history God’s people have found themselves in a land of Egypt, in a house of slavery, traveling through the great and terrible wilderness, trapped in an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. At such times some can lose faith in a God of love and mercy. He doesn’t seem to remember His promises. Job’s words become our words.

The hero of Night is Eliezer, a Hebrew name meaning, despite the circumstances, “my God is help.” An Eliezer has been Abraham’s servant, a son of Moses, and a key link in the royal lineage of Jesus. This Eliezer is a captive of twentieth century Nazis, just as his ancestors were captives of Babylon. And like his ancestors, the author imitates His God the creator with a poem of lamentation.

Walter Brueggeman*  notes that Jews were captive in Babylon after “Jerusalem was burned and its temple destroyed, the king was exiled, the leading citizens were deported and public life ended. For ancient Israel, it was the end of privilege, certitude, domination, viable public institutions and a sustaining social fabric. It was the end of life with God, which Israel had taken for granted. In that wrenching time, ancient Israel faced the temptation of denial—the pretense that there had been no loss—and it faced the temptation of despair—the inability to see any way out.”

In 1941 Eurpoean Jews found their cities destroyed, their synagogues burned, their leaders arrested, and their community deported. Despite the prayers, their life with God seemed ended. There was no way out of the barbarity.

In Babylon all the Hebrew poet could do was lament with Psalm 137:

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!

Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!”

O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!

Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”

In Europe, the poet’s  lamentation took the form of this novel, Night, yet retaining all of the characteristics of the classic Hebrew poem: a clear recognition of the fear of the Lord; a demonstration of the limits of human wisdom;  a meditation on the righteous and the wicked in relation to God; a grappling with the suffering of innocents; a questioning of the possiblity of worshiping God in such circumstances with integrity.

Like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim in the City of Destruction, both the psalmist and Eliezer cry out to God, “What shall I do?”

The psalmist’s lamentation creates a memory in a form which allows others to remember. Eliezer’s novel of lamentation allows others to never forget.

Today I thank God for His poets and their gift of lamentation.

Father, sometimes I wonder why cruelty and barbarity can exist right next to your Kingdom. How can the Kingdom of God be here Already, and Not Yet wipe out the remains of the Present Evil Age?  I thank You for having a divine purpose behind the mystery. Teach me how to run to You for comfort and healing. Make me an instrument of that same comfort and healing. Remind me to turn my pain and my confusion over to Your loving care. In Jesus’ name, amen.

* Walter Bruegeman, The Christian Century, 1997.

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