By the rivers of Babylon there we sat weeping when we remembered Zion. ~Ps 137:1
The responsorial psalm that most of us will hear this Sunday is taken from Psalm 137. Here, the psalmist recounts the sullen memories of exile in Babylon and consequently the alienation from Jerusalem. It is difficult for us to appreciate the spiritual trauma of the event, when in 587/6 B.C. the armies of Babylon (and its ally Edom) conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and led off into exile a significant portion of the population. The Babylonian Exile marked not only a brutal end to Judah’s political autonomy – a national tragedy – along with all of the disruption to social and family life, but it was a most critical moment of the people Israel’s understanding of their relationship with God. How could this have happened? Was the covenant finally over? Were the promises the Lord made to Israel abrogated? Whose fault was it? The end of the monarchy and temple seemed to suggest that God had at last abandoned his people on account of their wickedness and spiritual adultery to the covenant.
If St. Augustine is right and: “singing belongs to the one who loves,” then we find the inability to sing among Israel’s captives as a sign of both Israel’s sorrow at its loss and anger towards its captors. While we heard this Sunday only verses 1-6 of Psalm 137, verses 7-9 signal a radical change of tone from one of sympathetic lament to unbridled rage. Various interpretations of these graphic verses are proposed, and while we could never advocate infanticide of one’s enemies as justifiable, the psalmist certainly gives voice emotionally to the degree of pain and injustice he and his countrymen had experienced with the exile.
The generations of prophets – those before, during, and after the Babylonian Exile – came to understand that the loss of Zion and the exile in Babylon were a consequence of Israel’s sins. Israel was comfortable maintaining the outward appearances of fidelity to the law through the Temple cult and holy days, but this was all and exterior exercise in self-righteousness. The failures of Israel to maintain the integrity of the covenant – especially in terms of its moral precepts – resulted in the need for God to allow a radical punishment and moment of purification so that Israel might come to its right senses anew.
I imagine that to some extent we have all had moments of “Babylonian Exile” in our lives. Whether they were brought about by our own sins, or the sins of others, the sensation that my life has been thrown into total disarray and there is no sign of things returning to normalcy is nauseating and depressing. We look back at what we once had and can only sit and cry bitterly. If we are in the midst of such moments the need to rely on others and God above all is paramount. God never abandoned Israel, though tragic events were allowed to occur in order to bring about conversion in Israel. Some in Israel were innocent of the crimes the brought about the exile, like Jeremiah, and yet the sufferings he experienced only served to purify their faith. God does not abandon you or me. But for the moment as we weep, we remember: not merely the past, but that God is ever faithful and will restore that which is brought low.
Fr. Richard Hinkley