Pope Benedict XVI met with 23,000 pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square for his general audience Nov. 30. The Holy Father continued his series of teachings on the psalms and canticles of the Liturgy of the Hours. His catechesis focused on Psalm 137, both a lament for the destruction of Jerusalem and for the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon, as well as a prayer for deliverance and an expression of their longing for the Holy City.
“This heartfelt cry unto the Lord to free his faithful people from the slavery of Babylon also expresses the feelings of hope and expectation for salvation with which we have begun our Advent journey,” he noted.
The Pope pointed out that the slavery and sorrow on the exile in Babylon symbolically foreshadowed the death camps of the last century, where the Jewish people faced extermination. He called them “an indelible disgrace in the history of mankind.” Nevertheless, he said, God in his justice hears the cries of all those who are victims.
Pope Benedict quoted a meditation by St. Augustine on Psalm 137. He noted that St. Augustine realized that there were people among the inhabitants of Babylon who were committed to the peace and well-being of others even though they did not know God. He trusted that God would eventually lead these people to the heavenly Jerusalem, rewarding them for their pure consciences.
“He exhorts us not only to fix our eyes on the material things of the present moment but to persevere in our journey towards God,” the Holy Father said. “Only with this greater hope can we transform this world in a just way.
“Let us ask the Lord to awaken in all of us this desire and this openness to God,” Pope Benedict concluded, departing from his prepared text. “Let us pray that those who do not know God may also be touched by his love, so that all of us may journey together toward the city that is our final destination and so that the light of this city may also shine in our time and in our world.”
On this first Wednesday of Advent, a liturgical season of silence, of keeping vigil and of prayer in preparation for Christmas, we will meditate on Psalm 137, whose Latin version is famous for its opening words, Super flumina Babylonis (By the waters of Babylon). This text recalls the tragedy that the Jewish people endured during the destruction of Jerusalem, which took place in the year 586 B.C., and their subsequent exile in Babylon as a result. It is a national hymn of sorrow, characterized by a deep nostalgia for what had been lost. This heartfelt cry unto the Lord to free his faithful people from the slavery of Babylon also expresses the feelings of hope and expectation for salvation with which we have begun our Advent journey.
A People in Exile
The background for the first part of the psalm (see verses 1-4) is the land of exile with its rivers and canals, which provided water for the plain of Babylon, home for those Jews who had been deported. It symbolically foreshadows the extermination camps where the Jewish people — in the century that has just ended — were deported during those infamous death raids, which remain as an indelible disgrace in the history of mankind.
The second part of the psalm (see verses 5-6), on the other hand, is permeated with loving memories of Zion, the city that was lost yet is alive in the hearts of the exiled people.
In the words of the psalmist, the hand, tongue, palate, voice and tears all play a role. The hand is indispensable for the harpist, but it is now paralyzed (see verse 5) by sorrow. Moreover, the harps have been hung on the poplars.
The singer needs his tongue, but it is now stuck to his palate (see verse 6). His Babylonian tormentors “asked for the words of a song… a joyful song” (see verse 3) in vain. The “song of Zion” is “a song of the Lord” (see verses 3-4) and not some folk song or show tune. It can be lifted up to heaven only during the liturgy and by a people that is free.
God Hears Our Cry
In his justice, God, who is the ultimate judge of history, will understand and accept the cry of these victims, overlooking its sometimes bitter overtones.
We would like St. Augustine to guide us further with his meditation on this psalm. In his meditation, this Father of the Church introduces a surprising yet timely element. He realizes that there are also people who are committed to peace and to the well-being of the community among the inhabitants of Babylon, even though they do not share the faith of the Bible and are not familiar with the hope for the Eternal City to which we aspire. They have within them a spark of desire for what they do not know — for something greater, for something transcendent, for true redemption. He says that there are people with this spark even among the persecutors and among nonbelievers, who have some kind of faith and hope to the extent that it is possible given the circumstances in which they live.
The Eternal City
With this faith in a reality that they do not know, they are really on the way to the true Jerusalem, to Christ. With this openness to hope, both for the Babylonians — as Augustine calls them — and for those who do not know Christ and do not even know God yet desire the unknown, the eternal, he also exhorts us not only to fix our eyes on the material things of the present moment but to persevere in our journey toward God. Only with this greater hope can we transform this world in a just way.
St. Augustine expresses this in the following words: “If we are citizens of Jerusalem… and we have to live on this earth in the confusion of the present world — in the Babylon present among us where we do not live as citizens but are prisoners — we need not only to sing the words of the psalm but live them as well. This is achieved when our hearts completely and devotedly yearn for the Eternal City.”
Referring to the “earthly city called Babylon,” he adds the following words: “There are people there who, moved by love for it, strive to ensure peace — a temporal peace — and fail to nourish any other hope in their hearts, putting instead all their joy into this temporal peace without promising themselves anything else. We see them make every effort to be useful to society on this earth. However, if they do their best and their conscience is pure in doing this task, God will not allow them to perish along with Babylon. He has predestined them to be citizens of Jerusalem, provided, however, that living in Babylon they do not yearn for self-importance, fleeting riches or annoying arrogance…. He sees how they are enslaved and will show them the other city for which they truly yearn, to which they should direct all their efforts” (Esposizioni sui Salmi, 136, 1-2: Nuova Biblioteca Agostiniana, XXVIII, Rome, 1977, pp. 397, 399).
Let us ask the Lord to awaken in all of us this desire and this openness to God, and let us pray that those who do not know God may also be touched by his love, so that all of us may journey together toward the city that is our final destination and so that the light of this city may also shine in our time and in our world.