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Today during Matins we heard for the third and final time this year the singing of the beautiful and haunting psalm “By the waters of Babylon.” The chanting of this psalm is extremely solemn, contrasting sharply with the joyous Polyeleos which precedes it and the Magnification which sometimes follows it. Both the rarity of this psalm’s chanting and the starkness of the emotional contrast surrounding it serve to draw our attention to the absolute and unique importance that the psalm holds for us as we prepare to enter the arena of the Great Fast — and indeed, as we go through the whole of our life in this world as Christians.
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Sion.
This psalm tells us a story, the same story that comprises all of Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation. It is the story of our home, and of our exile from it. The psalm tells the story of the Israelites taken away captive into Babylon, weeping for the Jerusalem that was lost. This story is mirrored also in the pre-Lenten commemorations of the three Sundays on which it is sung: it is the story of the Prodigal Son, “coming to himself” in the far country and remembering the Father’s house. It is the story of the Last Judgement, that great day on which all of us will return home, whether we will it or not. And above all, it is the story of Adam weeping outside the gates of Paradise, that primal event of all human history which we commemorate today.
But it is not the loss of Sion that is the main element of this story. Rather, it is the remembrance of it. To lose our home is tragic; but when we forget it, something holy and precious in us dies. And that is why the children of Israel sit down and weep at the beginning of the psalm, because they are keeping the memory of Sion’s beauty alive in their hearts, and they feel that beauty so immediately and so keenly that they cannot help but weep. They do not weep for themselves, or for their own loss. They weep for Sion.
We weep for what we love. And if we wish to discover what we ourselves really love, we have only to ask ourselves: what is it that we weep for? So often we weep only for ourselves, if we even weep at all. But Christ showed us the way when He wept over Jerusalem, and over the people within her who had forgotten Sion even while living within her walls.
And it has only ever been the vision of that beauty, the beauty of Sion, which is nothing other than the beauty of Him Whose city it is, that has made men Christians. To be a Christian is to love Christ above all else, and that means to hold the beauty of Christ above all other beauties, to “set Jerusalem above all others, as at the head of our joy.” And the only reason why men love Babylon is because they have never seen Jerusalem — or else, having seen, they have forgotten it. The latter is the greater tragedy, the harder to endure and the harder to redeem.
So much so that the prophet lays a terrible curse upon himself:
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten. Let my tongue cleave to my throat, if I remember thee not…
In Scriptural language, the right hand is figuratively used to mean the source of all a man’s strength and power. The prophet here is begging God that if he ever forgets Jerusalem, if he ever lets the love and the memory of it die in his heart, then all his life and all his works and words and efforts be utterly blotted out and come to nothing.
But do we ourselves not forget Jerusalem? Not the earthly Jerusalem, but the heavenly, the Jerusalem “which is the mother of us all.” We have forgotten it as a people, and we forget it ourselves, the Christian men and women of the world, many times every day. What else is sin but the forgetting of Sion? What else is sin but to love the lives that we lead by the waters of Babylon? And is it any wonder, then, that our hearts are cold and our lives seem empty?
Fr. Seraphim Rose wrote in 1981, shortly before his death:
Every Orthodox Christian is placed between two worlds: this fallen world where we try to work out our salvation, and the other world, heaven, the homeland towards which we are striving and which, if we are leading a true Christian life, gives us the inspiration to live from day to day in Christian virtue and love.
But the world is too much with us. We often, and in fact nowadays we usually forget the heavenly world. The pressure of worldliness is so strong today that we often lose track of what our life as a Christian is all about. Even if we may be attending church services frequently and consider ourselves “active” church members, how often our churchliness is only something external, bound up with beautiful services and the whole richness of our Orthodox tradition of worship, but lacking in real inner conviction that Orthodoxy is the faith that can save our soul for eternity, lacking in real love for and commitment to Christ, the incarnate God and Founder of our faith. How often our church life is just a matter of habit, something we go through outwardly but which does not change us inwardly, does not make us grow spiritually and lead us to eternal life in God.
But as tragic as this is, there is something even worse, even worse than sin and the forgetting of God: what is worse is to obey the commands of our captors to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. To not only love Babylon, but to bless it in the name of the Lord, to call it holy and to sing for it the hymns of Sion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
Men have always loved Babylon somewhere in their hearts, and often they have even labored in its building, but for as long as Christendom endured they refused to bless it in the name of the Lord. Men have always sinned, but since the end of pagan Rome until the dawn of this terrible present age they did not dare to call their sin virtue. And make no mistake: this is precisely the demand that the world now makes of us. The world insists on nothing less than that we bless Babylon, that we not only forget but also betray our God and our true home. And small wonder: what better way to prevent a captive from escaping than by convincing him that he is already free, and in his own land?
And we deceive ourselves if we think that this could never happen to us, though we may go to church all the time or even live in a monastery; remember that the Jews for whom Christ wept also dwelt within Jerusalem and prayed in the Temple of God. It can happen to each one of us, because Babylon too is beautiful, beautiful and seductive. It is very easy to love it, even to believe in it… even to bless it. As Dmitri Karamazov says in Dostoevsky’s great masterpiece:
Beauty is a fearful and terrible thing… Can there be beauty in Sodom? Believe me, for the vast majority of people, that’s just where beauty lies—did you know that secret? The terrible thing is that beauty is not only fearful but also mysterious. Here the devil is struggling with God, and the battlefield is the human heart.
If we truly understood what the world is really trying to do to us — and how easy it is for it to succeed — we would be filled like the psalmist with a righteous wrath:
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.
The daughter of Babylon is our love for the world, and her infants are all the thoughts and desires that arise in our hearts for it. If we allow them to endure and to grow, if we feed them and nourish them, if we allow them to make their home in us, then the Jerusalem in our hearts will eventually but surely be destroyed.
Some people are afraid of this verse, and shy away from the violence contained in it. But this life is no game, and the Lord gave us anger for a reason. We must show no mercy to the passions and sinful desires that lurk within our hearts. They will not go away. Make no mistake: they will appear there, again and again, and so again and again we must immediately and without any doubt or hesitation whatsoever dash them against the Rock of Christ. And this means to remind ourselves — and the world — again and again that no one and nothing can compare with Christ: there is no beauty, no good cause, no love, and certainly no pleasure that can even begin to fill the emptiness of a heart bereft of God.
So let there be no emptiness there. We must fill our hearts with Christ if we are to have any hope of resisting the love of Babylon. And the best and only place to start is in weeping for the remembrance of Sion. Let us sow with tears, that we may reap with rejoicing. Because in this life, we cannot escape sorrow; we can only choose that for which we will weep.
The Lenten Fast that is now opening before us is no mere duty or tiresome religious obligation, but rather a great gift and a precious opportunity. An opportunity to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us,” and to fill our hearts instead with the joy and splendor of the holy. To reclaim at least a little bit of silence in our lives, to withdraw at least a little from the unending busyness and banal chatter of everyday life in the modern world. To fill our insatiable bellies a little less, and to instead fill our minds with the incomparable beauty of the divine services. To remember and revive at least a little of the zeal we first felt when reading the lives of holy men and women, those who sold all that they had in order to gain the pearl of great price. To enter at least a little into our own hearts, to remember again the peace and beauty of prayer when said quietly and deeply, rather than as just as one more thing to do before the day’s end. To forgive others, and so to ourselves find forgiveness. To discover, perhaps for the first time, that only by truly sacrificing ourselves for those around us will we ever find fulfillment and joy. And above all: an opportunity to not only behold, but also to mystically experience once again the supreme event of our lives, the saving Passion, the life-giving Death, and the glorious Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only Lover of Mankind. He speaks to us in the Book of the Apocalypse:
Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me. To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.
And what else in all the world could possibly compare with that?