Invocation. “When in the dark orchard at night / The God Creator kneeled and prayed / Life was praying with the One / Who gave life hope and prayer.”
—English translation of lyrics from “Wa Habibi,” a Christian hymn of the Syriac/Maronite rite. Also known as the Mother’s Lament, the hymn has been performed every year on Good Friday.
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It is staggering news: The birth of a baby girl, born as her mother, father and four siblings lay crushed among the earthquake rubble of a five-story apartment building in northern Syria. When rescuers found her, they had to cut the umbilical cord attaching her to her mother, who died sometime in the 10 hours between the building collapse and the rescue.
Aya, Arabic for “sign of God,” is the name this infant has been given.
Aya, a mother’s last determination when all prospects of breath seemed futile.
Aya, reminder of the slave child, Ismael, firstborn son of Abraham, sower of Semitic seed, by way of Hagar, cast-off, weeping in the desert — the first mention of weeping in the Torah, and thus in human history.
Ismael, meaning “God has heard,” also wailed. The text says, “And God heard the boy crying.”
The same God who, later, attended the misery (cries) of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, for they were “afflicted,” the same word used to describe Hagar’s plight.
Aya, whose life was inscrutably spared, not unlike that of Moses, by the innocent kindness of Pharaoh’s daughter and the bold action of Miriam, Moses’ sister. An imperial princess and a slave girl — who but the Sovereign of Heaven could script such a drama!
Miriam, named in Torah and the Talmud as a prophetess, leader of the exodus from Egypt’s brick yard, along with her brothers: “For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” Could there be a more dazzling, dumbfounding spectacle?
Miriam, whose name (in Hebrew) was taken up by Mary, mother of Jesus, whose Magnificat foretold terror among Herod’s minions, Caesar’s census and all who followed in their deceit and despotism.
And also of another Mary, “Magdalene,” the Jesus’ Movement’s first evangelist, whose memory was suppressed by the church for the better part of two millennia, now commemorated with a feast day and designated Apostle to the Apostles.
Aya, in the ancient lineage of Hagar, also known (in Islam) as a daughter of Egypt’s king, gifted to Sarah, and considered a matriarch of monotheism.
“It is from the rubble of earth’s erupting tragedy and human enmity that a cry for deliverance arises.”
It is from the rubble of earth’s erupting tragedy and human enmity that a cry for deliverance arises. Those attuned to the homing signal of heaven will also hear.
But first, the cacophony of the world’s clamor must be submitted to the silence of Lent’s tutoring. Gluttonous habits must be interrogated. Penitential posture must be sharpened; hands emptied to be receptive; knees bent in reverential awe; arms raised in urgent petition.
Only by means of a renewing of the mind and a decolonizing of the heart can we be prepared to receive the enchanted news, tidings of great joy, the death-defying, stone-rolled shout of resurrection.
The harbinger of Lent’s staggering promise is this: The coming ashen smear is not a mark of retribution. Instead of a tomb, it is the womb from which you — amid all creation — will be born.
The meek are getting ready. Let us join them.
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“From the true Light there arises for us the light which illumines our darkened eyes. / His glory shines upon the world and enlightens the very depths of the abyss. / Death is annihilated, night has vanished, and the gates of Sheol are broken. / Creatures lying in darkness from ancient times are clothed in light.”
—English translation of one verse from “The Coming Light: Hymns of St. Ephrem the Syrian,” fourth century CE
Ken Sehested is curator of prayerandpolitiks.org, an online journal at the intersection of spiritual formation and prophetic action.