Rachel gives us hope

Pope Francis has been speaking about hope in his weekly Wednesday general audiences since last December. On January 4 of this year the Holy Father discussed the Old Testament figure of Rachel as an image of hope. 

Rachel was the woman whom Jacob longed to marry, but was initially tricked out of doing so by his uncle Laban, who fooled Jacob into marrying Rachel’s sister Leah. Jacob then had to work seven more years for his devious relative before he could marry Rachel. 

Rachel was the mother of Joseph and Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest sons. Rachel died while giving birth to Benjamin. Centuries later the prophet Jeremiah made reference to Rachel, “Thus says the Lord: In Ramah [where Rachel was traditionally believed to be buried] is heard the sound of sobbing, bitter weeping! Rachel mourns for her children, she refuses to be consoled for her children — they are no more!” (Jer 31:15).

Matthew’s Gospel (Mat 2:17-18) says that Jeremiah’s prophesy was fulfilled when King Herod the Great accomplished the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents in his attempt to kill the Baby Jesus. Readers of Jeremiah in the centuries before Christ interpreted the prophet’s statement about Rachel as a personification of Israel mourning her people lost after the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel. Unlike the Jews who survived their captivity in Babylon, the Israelites taken away by the Assyrians “are no more,” because that empire forced the Hebrews to assimilate.

Pope Francis says about Rachel, “I would like to reflect with you on the figure of a woman who speaks to us about hope lived in tears. Hope lived in tears. The prophet Jeremiah refers to Rachel as he addresses the Israelites in exile, trying to console them with words full of emotion and poetry; that is, he takes up Rachel’s lament, but gives hope.”

After reading Jeremiah’s prophesy aloud, the pontiff said, “In these verses, Jeremiah presents this woman of his people, in a situation of suffering and tears, but along with an unexpected outlook on life. Rachel, who in the Genesis account had died in childbirth and had accepted that death so that her son might live, is now instead represented by the prophet as alive in Ramah, where the deportees gathered, weeping for the children who in a certain sense died going into exile; children who, as she herself says, ‘are no more,’ they are lost forever.”

What the Hebrews were experiencing in that ancient moment is something which many families experience today, due to addictions, family separations, wars, persecutions, etc. One need only check out the local or international news to see this sad reality.

“For this reason [that her children ‘are no more’] Rachel does not want to be consoled,” Pope Francis continued. “This refusal of hers expresses the depth of her pain and the bitterness of her tears. Before the tragedy of the loss of her children, a mother cannot accept words or gestures of consolation, which are always inadequate, never capable of alleviating the pain of a wound that cannot and does not want to be healed, a pain proportionate to love. Every mother knows all of this; and today too, there are many mothers who weep, who do not accept the loss of a child, inconsolable before a death that is impossible to accept. Rachel holds within her the pain of all the mothers of the world, of all time, and the tears of every human being who suffers irreparable loss.”

You may think — what does this have to do with hope? Christian hope cannot gloss over this suffering; rather it has to embrace it. The Holy Father added, “This refusal of Rachel, who does not want to be consoled, also teaches us how much sensitivity is asked of us before other people’s suffering. In order to speak of hope to those who are desperate, it is essential to share their desperation. In order to dry the tears from the faces of those who are suffering, it is necessary to join our tears with theirs. Only in this way can our words be really capable of giving a little hope. If I cannot speak words in this way, with tears, with suffering, then silence is better: a caress, a gesture and no words.”

What the pope said in this general audience is helpful to remember the next time we are faced with such as a sad situation. 

“God, with His sensitivity and His love, responds to Rachel’s tears with true words, not contrived; in fact Jeremiah’s text continues in this way: ‘Thus says the Lord:’ — He responds to those tears — ‘Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, says the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country’” (Jer 31:16-17).

“Precisely through the mother’s tears, there is still hope for the children, who will return to life. This woman, who had accepted death at the moment of childbirth, so that the child might live, is, with her tears, the beginning of new life for the children who are exiled, prisoners, far from their homeland. To the suffering and bitter tears of Rachel, the Lord responds with a promise that can now be the source of true consolation for her: the people will be able to return from exile and freely experience in faith their own relationship with God. The tears generated hope. This is not easy to understand, but it is true. So often, in our life, tears sow hope; they are seeds of hope,” preached the Holy Father.

He then referred to Matthew’s quoting of Jeremiah, discussing the Holy Innocents: “A text which places before us the tragedy of the killing of defenseless human beings, the horror of power which scorns and terminates life. The children of Bethlehem die because of Jesus. And He, the Innocent Lamb, would then die, in turn, for all of us. The Son of God entered the suffering of mankind. When someone addresses me and asks me difficult questions, for example: ‘Tell me, Father: why do children suffer?’ truly, I do not know how to respond. I say only: ‘Look at the crucifix: God gave us His Son, He suffered, and perhaps you will find an answer there.’ But there are no answers here [pointing to his head]. Just looking at the love of God Who gives His Son Who offers His life for us can indicate some path of consolation. His Word is definitively the word of consolation, because it is born of suffering. And on the cross it will be He, the dying Son, to give new fertility to His mother, entrusting to her the disciple John and making her mother of the people of faith. Death is conquered, and thus Jeremiah’s prophecy is fulfilled. Mary’s tears, too, like those of Rachel, generated hope and new life.”

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