By the Waters of Babylon:
The Lenten Trek Home
In the weeks leading up to Great Lent, we sing a special hymn, Psalm 136/137, in the Matins section of Vigil:
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Sion.
Upon the willows [i.e. trees] in the midst thereof did we hang our instruments.
For there, they that had taken us captive asked us for words of song.
And they that had led us away asked us for a hymn, saying: Sing us one of the songs of Sion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten.
Let my tongue cleave to my throat, if I remember thee not, if I set not Jerusalem above all other, as at the head of my joy.
Remember, O Lord, the sons of Edom, in the day of Jerusalem, Who said: Lay waste, lay waste to her, even to the foundations thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, thou wretched one, blessed shall he be who shall reward thee wherewith thou hast rewarded us.
Blessed shall he be who shall seize and dash thine infants against the rock.
This is a psalm originally written while the Israelites were in exile, in the Babylonian captivity. They are asked to sing one of their native songs, and refused to do so. The remainder of the psalm is a self-exhortation to not forget the Israelite’s native home; completed by what seems to be a desire for revenge.
This focus on exile hardly seems relevant to us today – Christians, at least those in the West, are not in captivity to another nation; while people may be far from their native country, they have the option to visit or move back with relative freedom.
Yet, in a sense, we are in exile – in exile from Paradise, which is our true home. Just like the Prodigal Son, who voluntarily left and could have returned at any time; we also must make the long, difficult trek back from sin to our Father’s house.
This is the journey of Lent – an annual call to make Christ the centre and whole of our life; to leave our Babylon of sin, self-indulgence and self-centredness, in order to return to a place where we love God and love the people around us.
Are we mindful of the New Zion?
Many times people live as if the New Jerusalem – that is, heaven – did not exist. We enjoy our Babylon, our temporary and worldly pleasures, while neglecting the worship of God and our need to control sin within ourselves. Worse is that we often love sin, that which holds us captive – and more captive than any human master. A human captor can only imprison the body and work on the mind, but sin has our mind and threatens our soul.
At is earliest stages is the control of sin the weakest. To defend against this, we ‘seize and dash thine infants against the rock’: the ‘infants’ are those little temptations that we all have, the earliest pin-pricks of sin’s attack. We need to be vigilant, uprooting and ensuring that these supposedly harmless shoots of weeds do not progress any further, do not suffocate the garden of holiness that we are cultivating. And so, we dash these tempting thoughts against the Rock: Christ. In Lent especially, we need to be preparing to encounter the Resurrected Christ, the One who slaughtered Death and took away any power that Death may have had over us.
We must remember our true home, and return to it. We must understand ourselves to be exiles from worldliness if we are to reclaim our citizenship in Heaven. To do this, we need to pray, fast, give alms to charity. We need to separate ourselves from worldly things, be at church services. We need to repent, to turn our lives around and orient our lives towards God, bearing witness to all in this strange land that Christ is Risen from the dead. In doing so, we will prepare ourselves not only for the Feast of the Resurrection, but for the greater Feast when, in His time, Our Lord will return and take us to the New Jerusalem – to live with Him forever.
Rev. Dcn Andrew Smith
- Prayers of the Church (Lenten Prayers): By the Waters of Babylon: Psalm 136, a talk on mp3 by Fr Seraphim Holland
- By the Waters of Babylon: The Great Fast, Our Exile, by Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose).
- By the Waters of Babylon, by Felix Culpa on the ‘Ora et Labora’ blog.
- By the Waters of Babylon, by Fr Stephen Freeman on the ‘Glory to God for All Things’ blog.