Sunday, March 15, 2015

Fourth Sunday in Lent: The Babylonian Exile

Image source:
Responsorial: Psalm 137:1-6
Second Reading: Ephesians 2:4-10
Gospel: John 3:14-21

The first reading recalls the fall of the kingdom of Judah, the southern half of the Davidic Kingdom of Israel, in 586 BC. The northern half, which had retained the name of Israel, had fallen to Sargon II in 722 BC, and had been redesignated an Assyrian province with the name Samaria. Now, with the twin invasions of the Chaldeans and Idumeans, the original Kingdom of David and Solomon was no more.

Moses had given the Hebrew people God and His Law. Nebuchadnezzar gave them their identity as Jews. The seventy years of the Babylonian Exile[*] had done more to make the Jewish people monotheists than had over four centuries of self-rule. The Hebrews had had an alphabet and a written language since at least David’s time; now they began to gather such records as they had and compile their oral traditions, to redact the beginning of what would eventually become the Tanakh — the Hebrew Bible.

This period, in which Jewish identity was being crystallized, also gave us Psalm 137 [136], a song of heartbreak and loss: “How could we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land?” Not included in the reading of the psalm is the anger:

Remember, Lord, against Edom
    that day at Jerusalem.
They said: “Level it, level it
    down to its foundations!”
Desolate Daughter Babylon, you shall be destroyed,
    blessed the one who pays you back
    what you have done us!
Blessed the one who seizes your children
    and smashes them against the rock.
Thus was forged in the minds and hearts of the Jewish people the iron triad of God, the Law, and Zion, to which they have clung with stubborn fidelity for over 2,500 years.

The lesson the Jews abstracted from their experience in Babylon was that they’d been deprived of their land because they’d broken the pact with God to which they’d sworn in the desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt. The only true freedom they’d found was in obedience to the Lord; however, they traded that freedom for dalliance with the foreign gods that came with foreign spouses, in indulgences in practices that the Law had forbidden them. And when God sent them prophets to call them back to His ways, they were scorned, mocked and ignored.

They had been called to be a “chosen people”, set apart from the rest of the world. Instead, they had become part of the world — they had become worldly.

The lesson for us, however, lies not in God’s anger against sinners so much as it is in God’s forgiveness for the repentant. I’ve remarked that the Jews found their identity in the Law. The only way they could find their way back to the Holy Land was to return to the covenant they’d sworn to live by; their repentance was found in living the mitzvoth of Moses. For without the Law, what is a Jew but a gentile who has a fondness for education and an inexplicable tendency towards circumcision? (Indeed, in Yiddish, a Jew who doesn’t observe the law is called a shabbes goy, a “Sabbath gentile”, or even an apikoros, an “unbeliever”. And Hebrew Catholics practice as much of the Law as doesn’t conflict with the Faith.)

To be holy, to be sanctified, is to be set apart from everything that is profane. The world recognizes this, and offers us many blandishments to abandon sanctification. We are given many false promises if we govern our lives according to the world’s standards: we will be happier, more beautiful, more successful, richer, more powerful, blah, blah, blah. We are given so many other foreign gods to worship: Wealth, Diversity, Fame, Sexual Satisfaction, Health, Empowerment, Autonomy, Equality, Influence, Name Recognition, yadda, yadda, yadda.

And just when we think we’ve gotten what we want … we find nothing on the other side of it. Whatever satisfaction we get by doing x we find is impermanent; it’s anti-climactic, disappointing. We’re left singing with Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?” (With that darkly humorous last verse: “I know what you’re thinking to yourself. ‘If she really feels that way, why doesn’t she end it all?’ Oh no, not me; I’m not ready for that final disappointment.”)

Perhaps if we keep doubling down on x … or, having transgressed one boundary, we decide to go further beyond the pale …. But no, the rush from the fresh accolades or notoriety eventually dissipates, as did the last rush …. Nothing we do can eliminate this sense of Sensucht, this “sense of longing that is greater than any having”, as C. S. Lewis defined it.

And the world keeps asking, “What have you done for me lately?” Often, as with the prodigal son, when we have nothing left to give, when our fortunes turn Turk with us, when the hidden costs of worldliness finally become manifest, the world abandons us … leaving us with addictions to feed and no way to feed them.

Saint Paul recognizes this spiritual emptiness behind the temporary rush. “You were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you once lived following the age of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the desires of our flesh, following the wishes of the flesh and the impulses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest.” (Ephesians 2:1-3)

Saint John reminds us that there will always be those who are spiritually dead, who accept the price the world imposes for their self-gratification as a sort of “cost of doing business”, who will never recognize that there’s a-whole-’nother level to life that’s accessed only through self-denial. Although many do their works in the open, they all shy away from the light of truth, which would expose the emptiness of their lives and the falseness of their gods. And so they are content to remain in Babylon.

God does not want us to live in Babylon, where joy is finally impossible to achieve. Rather, he wants us to live in His Presence. And it’s for God and his Presence that, in the end, our Sensucht is ultimately oriented: only there can that inexpressible longing be fully satisfied.

For us, our path home to our spiritual Zion comes from repentance, reconversion, and reform, by living the law of love. With Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the piacular sacrifice of the Jews is done for all time; what we offer up is no longer animal flesh and blood but our self-assertion and self-centeredness. Jesus has opened a path for us to reunite with God’s friendship; the only obstacle in the path is our own willfulness.

In the not-too-distant future, the world may seek to put us behind walls, to make us live in ghettoes and worship in catacombs once again. But even while we live in Babylon, we can begin our journey to the Kingdom of God, our spiritual Zion, by separating ourselves from Babylon in our hearts and actions. While the rest of the world goes dark around us, let us choose to walk in the light of Christ.

[*] The seventy years is usually calculated from the battle of Carchemish in 605 BC to the beginning of the Second Temple in 536 BC.