In Advent we looked at a series of scenes based on the theme ‘The gift of a Child’. At Candlemas we gave thanks for the gift of the child Jesus as a light to the nations. Now we turn from the crib to the Cross.
During the past year many have suffered bereavement so now, during Lent, I offer a series of reflections considering ‘loss’. Whatever the age, the person remains a child to the parents.
Session 1 – Thursday 18 Feb – Wednesday 24 Feb
The Lord will not reject for ever.
although he causes grief, he will have compassion,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone. Lamentations 3. 31 – 33
Cain is the first-born of Adam and Eve.
His birth is a joyful event and the beginning of family life.
He is soon followed by Abel.
In the garden Adam and Eve chose to make their own decision and had to reap the consequences. After the unfortunate episode of the disobedience in the garden, Adam was to work to cultivate plants and grow food; Eve would find that childbirth was a difficult and painful affair. However, when Cain is born she attributes the birth to her own powers: ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord’ (Genesis 4. 1). Cain grows up to follow in his father’s footsteps as a tiller of the ground. Abel becomes a herdsman.
In due course fruit and vegetables grow and lambs are born and both boys make a thank offering to God. It is not clear why God finds Abel’s gift more acceptable than that of Cain. It may be that Abel’s ‘firstlings … and their fat portions’ (Deuteronomy 15. 19) is what is required by law while Cain does not offer ‘first fruits’ (Leviticus 2. 14), merely ‘fruit of the ground’ (Gen 4.3).
Whatever the reason, Cain is offended; he is angry with God and does not accept God’s judgement. His pride has been hurt. His anger leads to violence towards his brother and he becomes unfit to be a member of the family. Eve’s joy at his birth and the prospect of future descendants, which seemed to reverse the promise of death as a result of eating the fruit in the garden, is now turned to despair. What will the future hold? One son murdered and the other banished from the family, as good as dead.
According to ancient custom, Cain could have been put to death for the murder of his brother but God is merciful. God chooses to make Cain a nomad, wandering with a mark on him to ward off anyone who would try to harm him. He has to live with his actions but so too do his parents. Cain does marry and have children but Abel has none.
Later Adam and Eve have another son, Seth (Gen 4. 25), but this new child and the reinstatement of the family cannot blot out the disruption of previous family relationships: the hopes of what might have been. This ancient tale may give some insights into the disruption of family relationships through the tragic loss of members of the family.
One year on from the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, many have seen their family torn apart. People have become more aware of the fragility of life and have spent time considering family relationships. Hopes invested by parents in a child or children have been shattered. Siblings have been separated by lockdowns and by death. The future seems to have been confiscated. Extinction is a possibility.
In the narrative of the first family hopelessness is experienced as the family is destroyed. The prospect of continuing life is bleak with parents feeling as if they have lost their purpose. They are weighed down by sadness. In the text how they grieve is not examined. For some people it is difficult to think about death: facing the reality is a struggle. For Adam and Eve there is no family to share their grief so they must look to each other but neither may be able to support the other because they are themselves, each one, traumatised. They may ask why this happened, they might have been angry, and perhaps they put the blame on their own previous behaviour. Perhaps this is yet more punishment for their disobedience. But God continues to watch over and care for the couple. Seth is born and Eve states that ‘God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel’ (Gen 4. 25). Even with the beginnings of a new family unit, the first cannot be forgotten but God is active even in loss. Through the long and complex journey of grief hope may emerge from despair.
God shows mercy to Cain and this gives us encouragement. Whatever disasters befall us and however we may feel, mercy can be a way forward. Perhaps there is disappointment with those close to us who seem to have let us down or perhaps we have not lived up to the expectations of others. We may be able to offer mercy to those from whom we have become estranged, with whom we have a grievance or to whom we have been unable to express our sorrows or regrets. Together with prayer or direct interaction here is an opportunity to receive healing for ourselves.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Matthew 5.7
We praise and adore you, God, our Father.
You are the maker of all things and you sustain your creation with love.
We pray that family members may grow together
through loss in mutual understanding
and be ready to encourage those close to them
who are disappointed, frustrated or disheartened.
Inspire us as we seek to nurture others.
Give us the grace to behave with kindness
towards those from whom we have been separated
and to those who have been a source of annoyance to us
and give us all your healing and wholeness. Amen