Babylonian Captivity

Ishtar Gate Babylon
replica of the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, in a German museum

In our first reading at Sunday Mass, we hear about how they threw the prophet Jeremiah into a cistern to starve. Why? Jeremiah had prophesied that a foreign power, the Babylonian empire, would conquer Jerusalem and destroy it. [Spanish]

Was Jeremiah right about that? Yes. The Babylonians did conquer Jerusalem and destroy it. And they took the Jewish people into exile.

Babylon. The archaeological site lies outside Baghdad, in Iraq. The original Jew had lived in that area, before the Lord called him to the Promised Land. Correct: Abraham. Abraham’s hometown of Ur lay downriver from Babylon, towards the Persian Gulf.

The same Hebrew word gave us both “Babel” and “Babylon.” We know they had a tower in Babylon, of which God did not approve. Anyone know the ancient word for the tower of Babel? Ziggurat. Like a pyramid. In the pagan mind, a ziggurat served as a gateway between earth and heaven.

To punish that human presumption—our imagining that we can climb up to heaven by our own power—God Almighty allowed the human race to separate into different nations with different languages.

In our Sunday gospel reading, we hear the Lord Jesus declare that He came to bring division. But we must remember that human division actually began with our own delusions of grandeur, our own arrogance before God. Humbling ourselves before Him can unite us again. The Lord Jesus separates the humble from the arrogant. He unites the humble with God, and with each other.

tower_of_babel-erich_lessing
Tower of Babel by Erich Lessing

…Getting back to the exile of the Jews: that exile fell like a hammer blow upon them. Let’s recall what had happened before that. Abraham had occupied the land that God promised. And, by a miracle, the old man became the patriarch of a very large family. A famine then threatened the family’s survival. Again, by a miracle, one of Abraham’s great-grandsons happened to have control of all the granaries of Egypt.

Then the pharaoh enslaved the numerous descendants of Abraham. By a series of miracles, God raised up Moses and led the people out of slavery. They returned to the Promised Land. They built the Temple, according to God’s instructions. They thought they would live happily ever after, in a powerful and prosperous kingdom, ruled by a wise king.

Instead they wound up exiles. Pretty much right back where it had all began. The exiled Jews might have thought: We have nothing to show for the previous thousand years of dramatic national history. They might have despaired and simply given up on Abraham’s covenant with God.

But, actually, they did have a lot to show for their years of history as God’s chosen people. They had the Ten Commandments. They had the annual Passover and the other liturgical observances. And they had the Holy Spirit of God, speaking to them through the prophets, teaching them to hope.

The Babylonian exile taught our spiritual ancestors to do the basic things we do. 1. Base our lives on our faith in the Word of God. 2. Gather together to listen to the Scriptures and pray. 3. Confess our sins and try to purify ourselves of worldliness and vice. 4. Look forward to the final fulfillment of God’s plan, trusting that He is the Lord of all things and all time.

Jeremiah Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo’s Jeremiah, Sistine Chapel

The Babylonian exile could have meant the end. When Nebuchadnezzar deported the last Jews from Jerusalem and burned the Temple to the ground, all the other nations of the Middle East certainly thought: that’s the end of the Jews.

But it wasn’t the end. It was the beginning of another chapter. A chapter that involved trying to live humbly and faithfully under the domain of a worldly pagan culture.

Does the word “Babylon” appear in the New Testament? You might think not, since the city fell to the Persians five centuries before the coming of Christ.

But, in their writings, St. Peter and St. John both called the Roman empire “Babylon.” In that sense, “Babylon” means: any adverse circumstances under which the Christian faithful must live. Any realm governed by empty pride, outward show, and deep godlessness.

They threw Jeremiah in a cistern because they did not want to hear the truth: God had not made His chosen people an invincible empire destined to attract the world’s attention. Rather, the Lord had united a struggling band of sinners, who shared one thing: Needing a Savior.

St. Peter wrote: “The church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings…Greet one another with the holy kiss. Peace to all who are in Christ.” Let’s receive that brotherly greeting, and share it with each other. It’s meant for us, because we share in the same brotherhood. Exiled in Babylon, striving to hold fast to the one, true God.

Moist Clay Nemo

Nemo

Today we encounter two Bible images at Holy Mass. One: perhaps the most genuinely terrifying. The other: among the most consoling.

1. We are floating around in a vast and murky ocean, like little minnows. Of a sudden, an enormous dragnet falls from the shimmering surface above. We get yanked up into an unfamiliar, bright light.

The dragnet contains an enormous amount of junk. Mostly junk. A few good, edible items. Expert sorters go through everything. The junk gets burned. The few worthy little treasures go into a bucket.

God Almighty proposes this image to us as a metaphor by which we can understand our entire earthly existence. If that doesn’t terrify us, well…

2. Meanwhile: We, the People of God—each of us individually, and all of us collectively, the holy nation extending to the four corners of the earth—we are a moist lump of clay on a potter’s wheel.

Now, I do not throw pots. But I think we all know one of the great maxims of throwing clay. Namely, that moist clay on a spinning wheel can always get re-molded. Ugly disproportion can become a lovely circle. Lumps can be kneaded away. As long as the potter has the expertise, and the clay still moist, and the wheel still turning: there’s hope. Beauty is still possible.

In this case, the potter has the expertise. He is God. What we need is faith enough to believe: He has us—each of us individually, and all of us together—He has us in His strong, deft, and skillful hands. Molding us into something.

God Almighty proposes this, also, as a metaphor by which we can understand our entire earthly existence.

So: Yes, we float in a murky sea, most of the contents of which will ultimately burn in an unquenchable fire, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. For now we swim around in the dark, like helpless little Nemos.

But, in this case: Nemo is not just a cartoon; he’s made of moist clay. And the hands of God can mold him, if Nemo only allows it, into something like a mighty dolphin or a frolicking orca. All Nemo has to do is believe in Jesus Christ.

Jeremiah, Temples, and Solid Ground

If this earthly tent is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. (II Corinthians 5:1)

When the prophet Jeremiah preached in the ancient Temple, the building had stood on its foundations for more than three centuries.

But the people had dwelt in the Holy Land much longer than that. They did not originally conquer Mt. Zion and Jerusalem. Instead, they built the first long-term home for the Ark of the Covenant in Shiloh, near the Jordan River. For centuries they worshipped in Shiloh. They sacrificed, sang, prayed. They consecrated themselves there, as if they stood on the firmest foundation of the world.

Then the Philistines destroyed Shiloh.

And not long after Jeremiah preached in the Temple in Jerusalem, declaring that the place would molder in ruins because of the sins of the people—not long after that sermon, the Babylonians destroyed the city and the Temple.

…Where can we stand on absolutely unshakable ground? Where do the tumults and tragedies of history not wreak their havoc? Where can we dwell in peace, a peace that no war could ever threaten?

It’s a small place, and yet it has infinite capacity. It is a place that has been crushed by violence in exquisite agony, and yet suffered no permanent damage at all. It is a temple, an ocean, a furnace, a sun:

The Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Praying for Miracles

hot-dog

As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside begging. On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.”

And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he kept calling out all the more, “Son of David, have pity on me.”

…Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.”

Immediately he received his sight… (Luke 10:46-49, 52)

This is what happened when the Lord Jesus was leaving Jericho. In two and a half weeks, I will be entering Jericho myself.

The blind man had the sense to cry out to the Lord, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.” The blind man persevered and kept calling for help even when they tried to make him stop.

We pilgrims are going to the Holy Land to cry out like Bartimaeus, to beg the Lord to have pity on us, to ask God to do good things for us and help us.

maerati(If you have any particular intention for which you would especially like me to pray, write it down on in the comment box, and I will carry it with me to Israel.)

Bartimaeus had the faith and the courage to ask the Lord for what he wanted. He wanted to see—which is a reasonable enough thing to want. Most of us take it for granted. It’s not like Bartimaeus was asking for something extravagant, like an Xbox or a Maserati.

Continue reading “Praying for Miracles”

Take Up Your Cross

 

 

 

Since Archbishop Wuerl wrote to us priests and asked us to make his points about Church teaching on abortion in our homilies this morning, I never got to give the homily I had prepared for today.  So here it is—a “web exclusive.”

 

 

You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped;
you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.
  Jeremiah 20:7

 

The prophet Jeremiah cries out his complaint to the Lord, and then resigns himself to his fate.  At the time when Jeremiah was called to prophesy, the people of the kingdom of Judah had fallen so far into paganism that they had taken up the practice of sacrificing children to Baal.  The Lord ordered Jeremiah to speak out and condemn this.  Jeremiah was to prophesy that the people’s apostasy and evil would cause them to lose their homeland and be taken away in exile.

 

Jeremiah made his resigned complaint after the High Priest of the Temple struck him and ordered him put in the stocks because the prophet declared that doom would befall Jerusalem.

 

Jeremiah was not naturally inclined to make trouble; he was no grandstander.  He would have preferred a quiet life.  But the Lord compelled him to speak the truth and warn the people about the coming wrath.  Even though obeying the divine summons cost him abuse, imprisonment, and exile, Jeremiah wistfully acknowledged to the Lord that he could not help but obey Him.  There is nothing sweeter, in fact, than to suffer for the Lord by bearing unflinching witness to the divine truth of Revelation.

 

Then Jesus said to his disciples,“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.”
  Matthew 16:24

 

This verse comes shortly after the verses we read at Holy Mass last week ( https://frmarkdwhite.wordpress.com/2008/08/21/caesarea-philippi/ ).  When the Lord told them to take up their crosses, His disciples were still with Him at the foot of Mt. Hermon.  As we recall, St. Peter had just declared the truth about Christ for the first time:  You are the Son of God.  You are divine.  This is what has been revealed to us:  Jesus of Nazareth is the eternal truth. He is the Lord of heaven Who compelled the prophets to speak.  Christ is the Holy One of Israel for Whom Jeremiah freely chose to suffer.

 

So St. Peter had declared the Catholic faith for the first time ever.  You might think the Lord Jesus would have patted him on the back, and then they might have spent some time basking in the moment.

 

Instead, Christ declared:  I, the Almighty Master of all things, I will bend my neck beneath the yoke of suffering and give myself over into the hands of my enemies.  I, the immortal One, will suffer and die.  This is my destiny; this is my mission.  And it is not to end in disaster, but in the triumph of life over death.

 

Let us try to put ourselves in the place of the disciples who first heard Christ tell them that in order to follow Him, they must take up their crosses.  Now, two millennia later, we know that the cross is the symbol of the perfect sacrifice of atonement offered by the Son of God.  We know that it is the symbol of our Redemption and eternal life.

 

For the original disciples, however, the cross was only a perverse instrument of torture used by their foreign overlords to make a public example of anyone who dared try to stand up against them.  No fate could be worse, in the mind of any Jew, than to be condemned to crucifixion and be driven by Roman centurions through the streets with whips, dragging your hundred-twenty-five-pound cross along with you pathetically on your shoulder.  Then you would spend two or three agonizing days hanging by your arms, with birds picking at you.

 

This is the metaphor that God incarnate used to describe what it was like to be His disciple.  Even the prophet Jeremiah might have quailed at this.

 

The crucial phrase in the Lord Jesus’ words, however, is:  “and follow me.”  God Himself has walked the way of the cross ahead of us, and He has risen again from the dead.  From heaven, He pours out His graces on us so that we can accept His invitation and become His disciples.

 

What are the crosses we have to take up in order to follow the Lord?  Each of us has his or her own.  Our crosses are formed by two beams.  The one beam is reality and the truth:  the law of God, the duties we have.  The other beam is our own smallness, selfishness, weakness, and fear.

 

It would be easy to imitate the virtues of Christ if we weren’t sinners; it would be easy to be humble, gentle, kind, chaste, courageous, and unswervingly faithful and honest.  Our crosses would be weightless if we weren’t so miserably inclined to run away from reality and the mission the Lord has given each of us to accomplish.

 

Let us resign ourselves like Jeremiah.  Living in the truth is an agony of self-purification and self-denial.  The truth makes demands of us.  But what else are we going to do?  God is God.  His grace is sufficient; His grace will be our strength.  If we lose our lives for His sake, we will find life.  And when He comes again in glory, we will shine like the stars in the sky.