Fourth Sunday in Lent: By the Rivers of Babylon
We are offered Psalm 137 on this Lenten Sunday. “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept.” Beautiful and poignant words! However, the psalm contains some of the most vengeful language in the psalms. Verse 9 isn’t included in our reading today, for obvious reasons. “Happy shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
The context for Psalm 137 is the Babylonian Captivity. The Babylonian exile is the period in Jewish history during which a number of people from the ancient Kingdom of Judah were captives in Babylon, the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The psalmist has returned from exile and prays for vengeance on Israel’s enemies.
We often suffer and seek God as individuals, but we worship together as a community of individuals who have been marked by an event. For instance, we witness many people gathering to mourn and be in vigil after a mass shooting or some other tragedy. We do not usually want to be alone in our grief.
Our communal worship allows us to articulate the fear, grief, disbelief and anger that we experience. The Israelites needed poetry that arose out of their experience of war, refugee experience, exile, oppression and despair. Communal laments are essential in our union with a society and planet that is marked by daily and indescribable suffering.
Commentators mention that Psalm 137 has a self-reflective mode, as the people look inward. In the case of this psalm, they are looking back to a painful past and recollecting the pains they have shared. The exile’s anger is heightened by the memory of Jerusalem, in the time before its destruction.
The strong words and images of anger and lament are a necessary aspect of catharsis. God is not bothered by our anger and strong feelings. Articulating it aloud is often an important element in ensuring that we don’t act on our anger and bitterness.
Our own contemporary culture refuses to let go of our hurt and anger rooted in global wars and recent events that remind people of the evils of war and terrorism. We need that collective lament and grief, as a means of being together and finding healing.
“How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!” I have been glancing now and then this year at Fr Carlos Valles, S.J.’s Psalms for Contemplation. The Spanish Jesuit who ministered in India offers his personal reflections on the psalms.
His reflection on this psalm centres around the probing questions, “How can I sing when others weep? How can I dance when others mourn? How can I eat when others starve?” And so on. Fr Valles is basically expressing his longing to be more sensitive to the pain of others, to see them as brothers and sisters with whom he suffers and to be able to once again find joy so that I can sing.
We are daily exposed to the pains and suffering of others, those we know and those who are complete strangers to us and whom we will never meet. How are we able to stay connected to them?