Reflection on Psalm 137

Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon we sat mourning and weeping when we remembered Zion. On the poplars of that land we hung up our harps. There our captors asked us for the words of a song; Our tormentors, for a joyful song: “Sing for us a song of Zion!” But how could we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. May my tongue stick to my palate if I do not remember you, If I do not exalt Jerusalem beyond all my delights. Remember, LORD, against Edom that day at Jerusalem. They said: “Level it, level it down to its foundations!” Fair Babylon, you destroyer, happy those who pay you back the evil you have done us! Happy those who seize your children and smash them against a rock.

As I have learned more and more about the great Magisterium, or teaching office of the Catholic Church, I have come to find that many of the guidelines set forth in Scripture, the Catechism, Canon Law, the writings of important members of the Church, and other sacred texts exist not to hinder me or prevent me from living a full life, but exist, rather, to enable me to find true and absolute freedom. A cursory glance at the written word does not always provide us with the opportunity to truly understand what is being taught to us, and often limits our thoughts to serve only pragmatic purposes. That is not to say that all interpretation of written word should be understood in an allegorical or illusory sense, but there certainly is merit in delving more deeply and uncovering meaning that is beyond the surface level.

For this author, one such occurrence of this was with Psalm 137. When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to assist with the editing of a well-done musical arrangement of the song “On the Willows” for the school’s production of Godspell. As a musician, and a very “wise” teenage, I zealously related to the idea of being oppressed by those who I perceived as captors and had terrifying it was to imagine that I would be unable to practice my art. For me, the psalm was a rallying cry to stand up to being held down. I also perceived the willow to be the Cross on which Christ would be Crucified, and the life being spent to only being his. Fortunately for me, I later discovered that I was largely mistaken about my interpretation.

Psalm 137 is a song of lamentation for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile, a heartfelt prayer for liberation and an expression of longing for the Holy City. When the Jews were exiled from Jerusalem in the sixth century, they were relocated to Babylon. They mourned not only because they had been deported, but also because everything they knew to be true was taken from them. Their lyres actually represented their lives, which they attempted to raise above the twisted and fouled waters that flowed at their feet, and fed the trees on the shore. Saint Augustine speaks of the waters of the river as watering barren trees which bring forth no fruit; just as there are men greedy, covetous, barren in good works, citizens of Babylon in such wise, that they are even trees of that region; they are fed there by these pleasures of transitory things, as though watered by the waters of Babylon. They seek fruit but it is nowhere to be found.

They were also unwilling and, in a sense, unable to sing. Saint Augustine also notes, we are tempted by the delights of earthly things, and we struggle daily with the suggestions of unlawful pleasures; scarce do we breathe freely even in prayer: we understand that we are captives. But who led us captive? What men? What race? What king? If we are redeemed, we once were captives. Who has redeemed us? Christ. From whom has He redeemed us? From the devil. The devil then and his angels led us captive: and they would not lead us, unless we consented.

In an address he gave in December of 2005, then Pope Benedict XVI said of this part of the psalm that:

“Involved in the psalmist’s words are the hand, tongue, palate, voice and tears. The hand is indispensable for the one who plays the lyre. But it has remained paralyzed by sorrow because, moreover, the lyres have been hung on the willows. The singer needs the tongue, but now it cleaves to his palate. The songs of Zion are the Lord’s canticles they are not folkloric songs or performances. Only in the liturgy and in the freedom of a people can they rise up to heaven.”

The grief among the captives was great, they were still hopeful that they would be rescued by their savior. And although they were mocked and persecuted, they would not give way to sinfulness. Before the introduction into the world of the redemption and salvation made possible by Jesus Christ, people assumed that salvation was a literal and experiential principal, understood only in physical terms. There was no sense that what was given by Jesus Christ would be eternal. The prayers and worship offered by the people was important, but did not did not carry the weight of significance that Jesus Christ would add through his death and resurrection.

The Psalm also refers to the person of Edom: a Jewish name for Esau. Just as Babylon and Jerusalem are portrayed as two cities that invite two presences in the world, so do Esau and his brother, Jacob. Babylon represents despair, sorrow, and the devil. Jerusalem is a promise that represents goodness, joy, and eternal salvation. In a similar way, Esau represents the carnal; Jacob represents the spiritual. This idea is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, the literal rendering being “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” This suggests an attitude of divine hostility that is not implied in Paul’s statement. In Semitic usage “hate” means to love less. Israel’s unbelief reflects the mystery of the divine election that is always operative within it. Mere natural descent from Abraham does not ensure the full possession of the divine gifts; it is God’s sovereign prerogative to bestow this fullness upon, or to withhold it from, whomsoever he wishes. The choice of Jacob over Esau is a case in point.

The final image in the Psalm is that of the destruction of children. There are historical events when this occurred, but the idea presented here is that the destruction of children represents the destruction of an entire generation. On the spiritual level, Saint Robert Bellarmine, in his commentary upon the psalms, sees an allegory here in which the children dashed against the rock are those who are brought to the Rock which is Christ and who are put to death to their former way of life, to be reborn into new life and salvation. Furthermore, with regards to the “innocence” of the infants who were killed, in the bigger picture it may have been an act of mercy; for if these infants have been rewarded eternal life and happiness in their innocence, far better that than to have grown up in a corrupt pagan environment which may have led to their eternal damnation at the time of their death. The justice and mercy of God extend beyond the grave and we must remember this when confronted with such circumstances of the ancient world—and the present.

Saint Augustine provides us with excellent words to live by. He says:

“Brethren, let not your instruments of music rest in your work: sing one to another songs of Sion. Readily have ye heard; the more readily do what you have heard, if you wish not to be willows of Babylon fed by its streams, and bringing no fruit. But sigh for the everlasting Jerusalem: whither your hope goes before, let your life follow; there we shall be with Christ. Christ now is our Head; now He rules us from above; in that city He will fold us to Himself; we shall be equal to the Angels of God. We should not dare to imagine this of ourselves, did not the Truth promise it. This then desire, brethren, this day and night think on. Howsoever the world shine happily on you, presume not, parley not willingly with your lusts. Is it a grown-up enemy? Let it be slain upon the Rock. Is it a little enemy? Let it be dashed against the Rock. Slay the grown-up ones on the Rock, and dash the little ones against the Rock. Let the Rock conquer. Be built upon the Rock, if you desire not to be swept away either by the stream, or the winds, or the rain. If you wish to be armed against temptations in this world, let longing for the everlasting Jerusalem grow and be strengthened in your hearts. Your captivity will pass away, your happiness will come; the last enemy shall be destroyed, and we shall triumph with our King, without death.”

Psalm 137 is not commonly found in the lectionary. It only appears once – during the fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B. When it is proclaimed, the final three lines are excluded because they portray the people of the Old Testament in a bad light. The Psalm is also found once in the 4-week cycle of the Psalm readings in the Liturgy of the Hours. Again, the final three lines are excluded. When it is found in the Liturgy of the Hours, it is always followed by Psalm 138, which is a Psalm that exults and praises God.

During this Advent season, the Church reads this Psalm, with its plea for liberation and its nostalgic yearning for the Holy City, as an expression of her own prayerful hope for the Lord’s coming. As St. Augustine tells us, we are called not only to sing this Psalm, but to live it, by lifting up our hearts with profound religious longing for the heavenly Jerusalem. There is no doubt that this is a Psalm of great sorrow and lamentation but, as will all things temporal, what it describes shall pass. The captors of the Jews in the Psalm can still be found today in people who oppress and persecute Catholics and what is true; in relativism; in complacency or apathy; by those who stand against the good that people try to do in the world. Despite the oppression we face, we must never forget to turn to God for someday we will all be together in the Heavenly Jerusalem.

***For those who have read some of my other works, you will know that I always cite my references extensively. That was not the case in this paper. The quotations I did use came from St. Augustine and St. Robert Bellarmine’s commentaries on Psalm 137 as well as an address given by Pope Benedict XVI.

Homily: 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, 2015

During my years as a music director for the Catholic Church, I provided music for hundreds of funerals. At nearly each one, the first reading came from the book of Wisdom, specifically Chapter 3, which reads “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace. For if to others, indeed, they seem punished, yet is their hope full of immortality; chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself.”

The Scripture passage magnifies the first reading from today, which begins with the statement that “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.” This is such an important idea for us to understand. Death is in the world because of one man, Adam, and because of sin. It is not something God wants, but it is something he must allow, something we must experience. God certainly has the power to remove death from the world, but doing so would mean that God would have to change our very existence, and take away our opportunity to reconcile our lives and return to Heaven. In Salvifici Doloris, a letter on redemptive suffering, Saint John Paul II writes that “Suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognize the divine mercy in this call to repentance.” By the same token, we need to die so we can be born again in to new life.

But, as always, God will not abandoned us. In today’s Gospel, we see two accounts of Jesus’ healing mercy. The first is when a woman, stricken with leprosy, touches his cloak and is healed by him. Even though a great commotion is happening around Jesus, he is able to tend to the woman as though no one else is there. The second account of his mercy is with Jairus’ daughter, who has died. Just as with Lazarus, death does not worry Jesus. He even refers to them both as asleep and not dead. When he speaks the words “Talitha koum” the girl rises. For us, the hearers of this story, this brings meaning to the words of the Gospel Acclamation we just heard that says “Our Savior Jesus Christ destroyed death and brought life to light through the Gospel.”

Today’s readings confirm for us that death is not permanent, and that eternal life awaits us. However, there is still much for us to do while we are on earth. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul expresses his gratitude to those who have lived their lives well and for others. And he also reminds them of what Christ did for them, and that it is important for them to do the same for others. He tells them they need to supply for the needs of others and ensure that all are taken care of. He even reminds the Corinthians of a principle that was established when the book of Exodus was written: that each person should only take what they need so that everyone will have enough.

Our lives are filled with opportunities for us to live well, to live justly, and to live as Christ taught us. And when our earthly life is over, we can be assured that Heaven awaits us, because Christ conquered death for us.

Homily: 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, 2015

As I was preparing my homily for this week, I tried to relate to the situation Jesus and his disciples were in while they were in the boat. I thought about the times life events caused my faith to be tested. I thought about the times that I had to rely on another person to see me safely through a situation. And then I realized that I had been in this exact situation before, as a father.

There have been a number of times when I have been asleep, either in my bed or on the couch, and one of my kids has woken me up to deal with something that was going on. Sometimes it was a “monster under the bed,” a loud burst of thunder, high winds, or strange noises outside. Regardless of the situation, I would rise from my place – often tired and ready to go back to sleep – to deal with the issue. Once all was back to normal, I remind my kids that I am there for them no matter what happens. I had a similar conversation with my daughter last night, when, for a second day in row, she was scared to sleep because of the storms. I assured her that everything was going to be okay and that if anything serious happened I would be right there to help her. She and I both know that to be true, but sometimes she needs some reassurance.

I believe this is the same assurance that Jesus gives his disciples. I could just picture them scurrying about, trying to figure out what to do. They finally decide to wake Jesus up to solve the problem, and can’t believe how easily he handles it. But, rather than only quelling fears, Jesus is actually able to calm the wind – something my kids wish I could do. Jesus is the real deal. And the question he asked his disciples – “Do you not yet have faith?” – is asked by him not for his own sake, but for that of his disciples.  I have said something similar when I have asked my kids “Don’t you know I will always be there for you? No matter what happens.”

The first reading also reminds us of the importance of faith. It takes place after the trials Job underwent, and in it we see God reminding Job of how he protected him despite his hardships. The reading, like the Gospel, also takes place during a storm. Once again, we are reminded that the power of God is greater than anything.

For someone at sea, a storm is a terrifying and dangerous event. But with God, there is safety and calm. There is nothing to fear. This is an important message for us to take away from today’s readings, but I think there is another.

God was not trying to only give assurance to Job. And Jesus was not trying to only reassure his apostles. They were both pointing to a much greater life for us, if we remain faithful and faith-filled. As Paul told the Corinthians, we now have the opportunity, because of Jesus, to become a new creation. We have a Church, given to us as a foretaste of the Heavenly eternity that awaits us. And we have, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, the gift of Jesus in the Eucharist.

God intends for us to be with Him in Heaven. If we are to get there, we need to live accordingly. To help us do so, he gives us the grace we need to see our way through many situations. And when we need some extra help, he is always there, waiting for us.

Homily: St. Catherine of Siena and James 3:17-18

This was written for my Diaconate formation class – that is the reason for the references to that program:

Today, the Church celebrates the memorial of St. Catherine of Siena. Catherine was born in Siena in 1347, into a very large family. When she was 16 years old she was motivated by a vision of St. Dominic and entered the Third Order of the Dominicans through the female branch known as the Mantellate. While living at home, she confirmed her vow of virginity made privately when she was still an adolescent and dedicated herself to prayer, penance and works of charity, especially for the benefit of the sick. Catherine was one of the most brilliant theological minds of her day, although she never had any formal education. She persuaded the Pope to go back to Rome from Avignon, in 1377, and was endeavoring to heal the Great Western Schism. In 1375, she experienced Stigmata, which was visible only after her death. She died in Rome in 1380. She was canonized in 1461, and later named Co-Patroness of the City of Rome and Patroness of Italy. In 1970, Servant of God Paul VI declared her a Doctor of the Church. A few years later, Saint John Paul II declared her the Co-Patroness of Europe.

In a general audience given by emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, he stated that “every believer feels the need to be conformed with the sentiments of the heart of Christ to love God and his neighbour as Christ himself loves. And we can all let our hearts be transformed and learn to love like Christ in a familiarity with him that is nourished by prayer, by meditation on the Word of God and by the sacraments, above all by receiving Holy Communion frequently and with devotion.”[1]

St. Catherine is a worthy patron for our journey to the Diaconate. Just as she was a spiritual mother and guide to so many when she was alive, she continues to be so through her writings and devotions to her. She was, in every way, devoted completely to Christ. “In a vision that was ever present in Catherine’s heart and mind, Our Lady presented her to Jesus who gave her a splendid ring, saying to her: “I, your Creator and Savior, espouse you in the faith, that you will keep ever pure until you celebrate your eternal nuptials with me in Heaven” This ring was visible to her alone. In this extraordinary episode we see the vital center of Catherine’s religious sense, and of all authentic spirituality: Christocentrism. For her Christ was like the spouse with whom a relationship of intimacy, communion, and faithfulness exists; he was the best beloved whom she loved above any other good.”[2]

St. Catherine taught about the importance of setting aside earthly trappings in pursuit of Heavenly goals. As Catherine said, “the path to Heaven lies through Heaven, and all the way to Heaven is Heaven.” This same sentiment is echoed in today’s reading from James. The passage begins by describing the result of earthly, false wisdom. This wisdom leads to “jealously”, “selfish ambition”, and things that are “unspiritual” and “demonic.”[3] But the true wisdom, the wisdom from above is: “pure, peacable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, and without inconstancy or insincerity.”[4] It is truly a model for what our lived relationship with Christ and others should be. Just like Catherine, we should wear the splendid ring of Christ to be for him all that he needs us to be in this world. Throughout our entire life, we should remain mindful of the good that comes from living by the wisdom from above. We should be pure in our belief, peacable in our actions, gentle in our justice, compliant and obedient, filled with mercy and good fruits, and without partiality or deception. As Catherine told us, we must “be who God meant us to be and we will set the world on fire.”

St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us.

[1] Benedict. General Audience. Nov. 24, 2010.

[2] Benedict. General Audience.

[3] James 3:14-15. NAB.

[4] James 3:17. NAB.