Most of us are probably familiar with the timeless musical, “Fiddler on the Roof”. The story centers around Jewish life in a village in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia at the turn of the 20th century. Tevye, a milkman in the village of Anatevka, attempts to maintain his Jewish religious and cultural traditions as outside influences encroach upon his family’s lives. He must cope with the strong-willed actions of his three older daughters who wish to marry for love; their choices of husbands are successively less palatable for Tevye.
When his first daughter marries, Tevye and Golda, his wife, sing an over voice song while a collage of images passes before our eyes. The song, entitled, “Sunrise, Sunset” has been a tearjerker for any parent seeing their first child married. The refrain from the song says,
Swiftly flow by the days
Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers
Blossoming even as we gaze
Swiftly fly by the years
One season following another
Laden with happiness and tears
That final refrain is a reminder that day after day our lives are spent. And as they are, they are “laden” with both happiness and tears. No life is spent without tears shed. This life, as wonderful as it can be, is still a veil of tears.
I was reminded of this when I read Ezra 3:10-13 “And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the directions of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.’ And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping.”
Ezra’s account of the Jewish contingent of over 40K people who, under the decree of King Cyrus, were allowed to return to the Promised Land to rebuild the Temple that had been burned and torn down by Nebuchadnezzar some seven decades prior when he took Judah captive into Babylon. Without a Temple, without national worship, Israel could not truly be a nation functioning as the people of God. To rebuild the Temple was to begin the rebuild of the nation. We can scarcely appreciate how much this meant to this Jewish contingent who came back into the land.
But when the foundation was laid, a mixed response was heard. Many sent up a great sustained cheer. And yet, for those who had seen the first Temple, Solomon’s Temple, the small dimensions of this rebuilt Temple were a reminder of all they had lost and how diminished the nation had become. From them, and probably others who, while not seeing the first Temple themselves, were aware of the reduction in size, came a mournful moan. It was a reminder of how the once great nation had fallen.
This mixture of happiness and tears is a metaphor of life. Some lives are incredibly happy, laden with sustained blessing and good fortune. Other lives are a grim struggle from cradle to the grave. Yet, the happiest of lives endures sorrows and ultimately ends in the most profound sorrow, death. And, conversely even the most difficult life is also strewn with happiness along the way. This dynamic reminds us of what we lost in the garden: innocence. And with a loss of innocence came the introduction of tears.
This past year of 2020 is a prime example of this mixture of happiness and tears. While it was a year that most of us do not want to repeat in 2021, there was in it both difficulties and joys, sadness and happiness. Every year is like that but some more profoundly so.
I know our hope for 2021 is a return to normalcy. But even if that happens this year, it will be a year of both sorrow and rejoicing. Rudyard Kipling would bid us treat both those imposters the same. In his masterpiece of poem “If” he proposes to his son a series of “ifs”, that if mastered, they would lead to manhood. One such “if” is:
“If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same.”
Our triumphs and our disasters are not much different. They both challenge us to embrace the sovereignty of God and take in stride all that comes because both will come. And to see those “imposters” for what they really are (one pretending life will always be great, and one pretending things will never be better) … seeing them simply as the “stuff of life” that both can bring us to a greater degree of sanctification, then we will have a victorious New Year.
I do not know what happiness will be mine this year. And I do not know what tears await. But I do know that God intends both to make me more like Christ (Rom. 8:28). If that can happen, it will be a great, great year in 2021.