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: 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.

Confession about Confession

For many years, I was extremely irresponsible with the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Sometime in my early years of working for the Catholic Church, I developed the attitude that it was unnecessary for me to make confession. In my ignorance, I believed that God was going to give me some sort of free ride through life because I worked for the Church. I certainly understood the doctrinal and theological principles of reconciliation, but I didn’t think they applied to me.

After 5 or 6 years of doing this, I began to realize that I might be wrong…

At that point, however, I also realized that I had begun to forget what sin even was. As I continued to avoid confession, I began to read some of the writings of the church fathers and other significant figures in church history. It became frighteningly clear to me that I was treading in dangerous waters, and I needed to reform.

My next step, however, still wasn’t confession. I did everything I could to avoid sin. I also stopped receiving the Eucharist. Although my awareness of my actions did result in me sinning less, I was gaining nothing by avoiding yet another Sacrament. Despite everything I knew about the seal of confession and the beauty of the Sacrament, I still forced myself to stay away.

I finally gave in…it was the day before Easter. I printed out a list of what I was supposed to do, and drove to a not-so-nearby Church where I would know no one. Upon entering, I took a few moments to pray, and then entered the Reconciliation Room. I began my confession and, as I said my mortal signs aloud, I knew that this was the first and only time that I had ever truly faced them, both by myself and with God. I confessed the sins which were most pressing to me, and, at the end of my confession, the priest spoke some of the most beautiful words I had ever heard spoken. He said:

“You know that you have a Father who loves you, no matter what may happen. The Sacrament which was lost to you has now been restored.”

After I completed my penance, I reflected on the priest’s reference to the Eucharist as something which was lost to me. Although I did stop receiving it while I was in a state of mortal sin, I had not thought of it that way. It truly made sense, though. Through my sin, I personally chose to be disobedient to God, and that choice meant that although he never left my side, there was nothing I could do outside of the Sacrament of Reconciliation to restore myself to a right relationship with him. And now that I had realized that, I didn’t hesitate to allow it to have a proper role in my life.

I also began to truly understand perfect contrition and how valuable it is. With imperfect contrition, we are motivated to confession because of our fear of God. It is understood to be our most basic response to sin, so it is all that is necessary for confession. Perfect contrition, however, is the motivation to confess because of our love of God. For me, this has been a powerful tool to help me avoid sin. Through perfect contrition, sin is seen as an unloving act. If it is written onto my heart to love God, then how could I ever sin?

Of course, I still do fall into sin. But I now go to confession regularly. It has truly become a joyful experience for me. And I always remember that I have a Father who loves me, no matter what may happen.

Ten Were Cleansed, Were They Not?

The Gospel reading from last Wednesday (November 14) recounts the story of one of Jesus’ many healing miracles. While journeying through Samaria and Galilee, Jesus encounters 10 lepers who ask him to heal them. He responds by telling them to visit the priests. While they are traveling, they are cleansed. The passage continues:

“And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus said in reply, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” Then he said to him, “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”

Like many passages in Scripture, there are numerous layers to the meaning of this text. At the most basic level, we are reminded about the importance of gratitude. Jesus’ use of a rhetorical question demonstrates that gratitude should have been at the forefront of the minds of those who were healed. Instead, they were more concerned with themselves than God, and, although they may have felt gracious that they were healed, they chose to not return and recognize God.

The question Jesus poses is much like the moment in Genesis where God asks Adam: “Where are you?” Clearly, God did not need help finding Adam in the Garden. But by responding, Adam was made to face the reality of his actions. Jesus has a similar goal in this situation. He asks this question because he wants those in his company to understand the necessity of gratitude. Jesus does not need the other nine to come to him and say “thank you.” But, God deserves at least that much. And as we read in the passage, salvation, not only healing, is granted to the Samaritan.

Just as we are commanded to pray without ceasing, we must also remember that “In all circumstances [we should] give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (Thessalonians 5:18). From this understanding, gratitude becomes a responsibility. It is so significant that both Cicero and G.K. Chesterton remarked that gratitude is of such great importance that other virtues follow from it. And, our Catholic faith is rich with examples of faithful persons who demonstrated gratitude in both good situations and tribulations or suffering.

When I wake up each morning, I have a choice to make. I can be angry with God that I am sick. When I consider all that has happened and will happen, it would be fairly easy to do so. But I prefer to thank God because, in spite of everything, he has blessed me with life and will never abandon me.

Don’t be one of the nine.