August 22, 2014

Psalm 137

1 By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
  when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
  we hung up our lyres.
3 For there our captors
  required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
  “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song
  in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
  let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
  if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
  above my highest joy!
7 Remember, O Lord, against the E′domites
  the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Raze it, raze it!
  Down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
  Blessed is he be who requites you
  with what you have done to us!
9 Blessed is he be who takes your little ones
  and dashes them against the rock!

Jewish Prisoners
Jewish prisoners being taken to Babylon, 6th c BC

Psalm 137 is set against the background of Jerusalem’s brutal destruction by the Chaldeans in 587 BC and the cruel captivity of the Jews taken to Babylon. It’s not hard to imagine the devastation. Today, in the same region of the “cradle of civilization” by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers we have an almost identical picture of horror as ISIS troops cleanse the area of Christians and other religious minorities. One recent observer, describing a scene in a Mosul park said, “They actually beheaded children and put their heads on a stick…More children are getting beheaded, mothers are getting raped and killed, and fathers are being hung.”

This psalm is a prayer of longing for return to the peaceful beauty of normal life and worship of the Lord centered around the Temple in Jerusalem. Taken literally it is also a prayer of vengeance, and the last line is so violent that some churches refuse to use it. But the Fathers of the Church never read such verses literally, and instead reinterpreted verse 9 in terms of the spiritual life: the “little ones” are evil thoughts that are to be smashed against the rock of Christ before they “grow up” and became ingrained habits. “Blessed is the man who puts the knife instantly to sinful passion and smashes it against a rock! Now the Rock is Christ.” (Saint Jerome, see 1 Cor 10:4).

The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise
Adam and Eve lamenting (detail from a painting by Masaccio, 1401-1428)

The Orthodox Church hears Psalm 137 as a profound meditation on spiritual exile and sings it solemnly at matins on the three Sundays leading to Great Lent. The Sunday before Lent is Forgiveness Sunday, but it also recalls Adam and Eve’s exile from Paradise. 

Of old, the enemy who hates mankind                            
envied me the life of happiness I had in Paradise.
Taking the form of a serpent, he caused me to stumble
and made me a stranger to eternal glory.                       
I weep and lament in soul,                                 
shedding abundant tears with my eyes,                         
when I reflect upon the nakedness                            
that is mine through the transgression.                         

The evil serpent in his envy
wounded my entire soul.
He caused me to be banished from the delight of Paradise.
Do not despise me, O God my Savior,
but in Your loving compassion, call me back.

As Christians we can never be fully at home in this world, even in the Church of this world, and are always longing for return to Paradise where, by God’s grace, we may more perfectly partake of Christ in the never ending Day of His kingdom.

Memory Eternal

This weekend His Beatitude and the Chancery staff will be mourning the loss of our housekeeper Svetlana’s husband, Alexander, who reposed in the Lord on Wednesday. He had been struggling with cancer for some time, and Father Leonid Kishkovsky had been giving pastoral care to Alexander and Svetlana over the past few months. Services will be held at Our Lady of Kazan Church in Sea Cliff, NY where Father Leonid is the pastor.

“With the Saints give rest O Christ, to the soul of thy servant Alexander, where sickness and sorrow are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.”