Babylon and Bernstein


by The Rev. Barbara Mraz

Was it all bad dream?

I wake up to the sunlight on the green hillside, filtering through the lace curtains in my bedroom.  How do I reconcile this beauty with the horror of the two hours I watched on television last night, the city burning? 

It seems a cruel paradox that just as we most need to reach out to each other to listen, to understand, to console and be consoled, we are more physically-restrained than ever from doing this because of the raging pandemic. Here is one historical/Scriptural perspective (with a little music for your soul) on living with…. Well, on living day to day. The work that needs to be done in countless ways is staggering, and this is a long view.

The setting is Babylon (now Iraq) 2500 years ago. The Jews have lost everything and are now the slaves of the Babylonians. Psalm 137:

1 By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?

Jeremiah writes to them:

This is what the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel, says to all the exiles who were carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon:

Build houses and settle down.
Plant gardens and eat their produce.
Take wives and have sons and daughters.
Take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters.
Multiply there; do not decrease.…

Fr. Cargill Thompson writes: “Despite the awfulness – adversity was the mother of creativity. Much of what people in the time of Jesus took for granted about their faith was developed during that awfulness 600 years earlier when people had no choice but to do things differently. Much of the Old Testament was written down for the first time. Poems and Prophecies and songs and stories and sayings that for generations had circulated orally now had to be written down to make sure they were not lost under the yoke of the Babylonian oppressor. Synagogues were invented – if you could not go to the Temple to offer sacrifice at least you had to have somewhere to pray. The Sabbath and keeping kosher became extra important – clinging to the details became a way of marking yourself out as God’s people when you were surrounded by people who thought nothing of your God.”

Or as Leonard Bernstein puts it in his musical Candide:

You’ve been a fool
And so have I,
But come and be my wife.
And let us try,
Before we die,
To make some sense of life.
We’re neither pure, nor wise, nor good
We’ll do the best we know.
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow
And make our garden grow…

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