I tasted my first Pomelo in the city of Jericho. We had hiked for several hours beside the wadi qelt, a valley that travels through the Judean desert, descending from Jerusalem down to Jericho. For most of the year, wadis in Israel/ Palestine are dry valleys. When the rainy season comes, they fill suddenly with water. For a brief time, plants flourish and flowers bloom.
Jericho is an ever-green oasis in the desert, given the many springs that originate there. Arriving in town, weary and thirsty from our hike, the fruit stands lining the streets drew us. My friend Elizabeth pointed to a large, yellow, round fruit. “Pomelos!” she squealed. The fruits resembled grapefruit, only bigger. A heavenly citrusy frangrance wafted from them. “What?” I inquired. “You’ve never had a Pomelo?” she looked at me with mock horror. “We ate them all the time in California, where I grew up.” She bought one and we carved it up – laughing, we savored its juicy, sweet, restorative splendor. Each winter since I have noticed the Pomelos that appear fleetingly in the produce section here in Minnesota They always smell incredible – but when I buy one and take it home, it never tastes as good as that first bite.
Psalm 126 was likely composed after Israel returned from exile. Freed from slavery in Egypt, the people wandered in the wilderness, then settled in the promised land. After some years of tribal rule, they created a monarchy. The nation soon split into two: northern and southern kingdoms. The great empires all around threatened. The inhabitants of the northern kingdom were completely wiped out by the Assyrian armies. Those in the south faced destruction at the hands of the Babylonians, who burned Jerusalem, tortured and killed its inhabitants, and deported those who remained. After a few generations of exile, the Persians came into power, bringing with them a more ‘enlightened’ philosophy of empire. They freed the displaced people and encouraged them to return home and to rebuild the ruins.
Likely, the homecoming from exile is the scene the Psalmist recalls in these verses: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”
Yet, as William Long quips, “we can’t eat yesterday’s manna” or, I would add, yesterday’s pomelo. The present is not a happy time for the Psalmist’s community. It is a dry and thirsty season. The wadis carry no water, the skies no hint of rain to come. Weeping tears of fear and desperation, the desert farmers cast seeds into the cracked earth. With longing, the poet recalls the earlier acts of God. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses (or wadis) in the Negeb.”
The Negeb desert encompasses the whole southern half of the holy land. In Hebrew, the name ‘Negeb’ literally means “dry”. Today according to Wikipedia, 85% of the Negeb is used for military purposes. Native desert people called Bedouins, who were nomadic herders, live without claim to their ancestral holdings, unable to sustain their traditional way of life. The Negeb hosts a nuclear reactor, agro and chemical factories, an oil terminal, a toxic waste incinerator, and two rivers of open sewage. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negev) The Psalmist’s prayer suggests that joy will come to the desert like the sudden, torrential and brief flow of the seasonal wadis. The question is, how do we survive the time between the rains? How do we sustain hope in the dry places of our lives and our world?
Psalm 126 is part of a collection of Psalms called the “songs of ascent”. Scholars believe that these Psalms are clustered together in the Bible because of the way they were used. They were like the prayer book for those making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, those “ascending” to the temple mount. In this season of Advent, it seems fitting that we borrow this ancient traveling music. As we wait and watch and weep, we too are pilgrims on our way to hope.
This fall, we received some sad news from my brother and his wife – they had experienced their second miscarriage. My sister-in-law Sarah, one sleepless night, wrote an essay about this loss. As part of her own grieving process, and for the sake of others’ healing, she shared this piece widely. I’m reading part of it today with her permission.
She writes: “John and I told ourselves we had not gotten our hopes up as much as we had the first time, when we had thought we were through the first trimester, had told the world it felt like, before we found out the baby’s heart had stopped beating. But really, we had gotten our hopes up, because pregnancy is just that–hope. Hope for new life. Hope for a sibling for our daughter. Hope for holding that tiny baby in our arms and marveling over how small a newborn’s head is, how it can fit right in the palm of your hand… After the first miscarriage John and I picked out a single butterfly windchime to hang in our yard. It seemed fitting, since our baptism gift to [our daughter] Evie May had been a set of windchimes, to acknowledge our loss of that life in this way.
After the second miscarriage, John and I told ourselves we were just fine, we would get through this, let’s just get my body back to normal and get back to trying again. I never got you anything, baby. I never got out the pregnancy books. I never looked at the e-mails that tell you what size fruit your growing fetus is this week. I never told anyone about you except those closest to me. I didn’t acknowledge you in any way for fear you would be taken from me. And then you were, and it felt too late to claim you, so I tried to sweep you away so I could move on with my life and forget about the pain I felt for you. I am so sorry.”
Our experiences of pregnancy and birth are complex; they can encompass so much heartache. And yet, during Advent we frame our hope in exactly these terms. What does this hope look like in this season for those grieving the loss of a child, or any kind of loss? When we find ourselves in a dry, desert time, does it ring hollow to encounter the expectant hope of pregnancy? Does our reference to the celebration that surrounds birth only further wound those who are already in pain? “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
The truth is that the birth for which we wait is about hope, but not just any hope. Hope that has traveled. Hope that makes the pilgrimage through our deserts. Hope that weeps with us, watering the arid lands of regret and the cracked ground of fear, flooding the dry valleys of despair. Hope that plants seeds amid those tears. Hope that waits along with us for the wadis to flood and the harvest to come.
The verbs, “go out” and “come home” in those last two verses are doubled in Hebrew, a linguistic device which emphasizes the strength and certainty of the singer’s hope. The word in Psalm 126 that is translated “shouts of joy”, rinnah, echoes through this Psalm like a refrain. There are other terms in biblical Hebrew for quiet rejoicing. These are loud cries. They are whoops of victory. (Talitha Arnold, Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol 1, p. 58) Hope is, as CS Lewis puts it, a “good catastrophe,” In our waiting and watching and weeping, let us prepare for what is coming … a sudden gracious turn, a life-sustaining, life-altering gift of joy. Amen.