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Pandemic Exile: By the Rivers of Babylon

April 27, 2020


In 1978, the band Boney M had a hit single with the song called “The Rivers of Babylon.” The song is based on Psalm 137 in the Bible and expresses the sadness of the Jewish people who found themselves in exile away from their homeland and in Babylon in the sixth century before Christ.

Exile was hard enough for them, but the real source of their distress was not being able to worship in the temple in Jerusalem. They lament:

Beside the streams of Babylon we sat and wept at the memory of Zion, leaving our harps hanging on the poplars there . . . Jerusalem if I forget you let my right hand wither! May I never speak again if I forget you! If I do not count Jerusalem the greatest of my joys.

During this modern time of restriction—when we cannot gather as a faith community to worship in our local churches—this psalm and its poignant sentiment of longing is resonant for us. I felt this same sadness acutely (and ironically) on Easter Sunday, when celebrating Mass of the Lord’s Resurrection while looking down on empty pews. On the most joyful and important day of the Church’s year, we felt the sadness of not being able to gather in our places of worship. Yes, modern technology has softened the blow by live-streaming many liturgies from our churches, but we know that it just isn’t the same. We want to be there. We want to be together. We want to be back home. What this experience of being in exile connects us with is the joy of worship and how we miss that joy by not being able to worship as a community in our local church.

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The joy that comes from worship and praise of God is prominent in the Scriptures, especially the Psalms. For example, in Psalm 43, the author clearly links the experience of joy with worship of God: “Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and upon the lyre I shall praise you, O God my God.”

Likewise, in Psalm 84 the author exclaims: “How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord God of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. . . . Happy are those who live in your house, forever singing your praise.”

These psalms are almost panting with excitement and anticipation about being able to go worship in the temple. Many of us, today, might consider this exhilaration to be exaggerated, for our modern experience of church worship has rarely excited us. But found in these psalms is a taste of how important it was for the Jews to worship and to do so in God’s own house. For them, it was a moment of great joy to do so and therefore an extreme sadness to be unable to gather there in prayer.

Psalm 122 is one that captures how much we look forward to when we can return again to our churches for prayer and for the Mass. There the author writes: “I was glad when they said to me, ‘let us go to the house of the Lord!’” This is the joy we hope we will feel when we can assemble once more in our local churches. Again, it speaks of an inner joy and anticipation of coming back for prayer and praise. It also speaks of going together, being invited by someone else, summoned to share in something uplifting and to taste the divine. There is a sense of completeness that we are now lacking in our lonely, televised, and isolated worship.

Reading these psalms, the thought struck me: how wonderful it would be if everyone had at least something of that enthusiasm when eventually we assemble again for prayer in the future! That when we can safely gather again for the Eucharist, we come to worship God in greater numbers—with renewed hearts of joyous gratitude for the freedom and possibility of being together again in God’s house!

Unfortunately, before the pandemic crisis, we often slouched toward Mass with a sense of obligation, endurance, or habit, with little thought as to what it meant to be free to worship and the privilege to worship in our own place.

Or worse still, we didn’t gather at all. This is the stark reality for over 70% of baptized Catholics. Weekly worship with the faith community is not part of their lives. What that points to, based on the psalms we have looked at, is the need to rediscover the delight of worship that powerfully awakens the Spirit of God dwelling within us.

The psalms convey authentic and deep gladness at coming to the house of the Lord because there we meet a God who is love, who is life, and who wishes us to experience the joy of praising him. For when we experience the love of God and respond to it by love in return, the fruit is joy that comes from prayer. For we do not worship a god who demands our worship as a servile debt to him. No. Our God and Father draws close to us, wants us to experience him and know him, and invites us to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (Ps. 34:8).

And when we do, then worshiping him is not be something we have to do but something we want to do, with every fiber of our being. And when we all rediscover our lives of worship once this pandemic is over, then we will come to know what we have been missing: the bliss of encountering, as a family, the source of all love, beauty, truth, and goodness who is God.

In fact, this is what we pray at the Mass itself when we say: “It is our duty and our salvation always and everywhere to give you thanks and praise” (Preface to Eucharistic Prayer). Giving God thanks and praise is not only a duty but our salvation too—it saves us by drawing us deeper into a relationship with the living God. So maybe, just maybe, this crisis will be the spur for a revival of the liturgical life of the Church and our common lives of prayer.

Friends, we have missed the gift of gathering for the Eucharist in our churches. We miss it terribly. Yet I believe that in God’s overall providence, he is teaching us something valuable in all this. First, that we took our religious freedom for granted before. We are now experiencing what thousands of persecuted Christians experience each week, sometimes for years after attacks on their churches and threats to their safety. Second, that we may not always have had the joy of worshiping God uppermost in our minds and hearts when gathered for prayer before this crisis.

And finally, our hope and prayer is that when this long fast from public worship is over, we will gather again in our beautiful churches with greater faith than before and with even greater happiness. By the rivers of Babylon we now weep away from our temples. But the joy of worship will be ours again. Soon.