“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows in its midst we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and those who carried us away, a hymn, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land (ἐπὶ γῆς ἀλλοτρίας)? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!“ (Ps 136/137: 1-5, Septuagint-translation)
We all find ourselves in “a foreign land.” And not only because of the strangeness of our present-day politics. :/ As the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, “For here have we no enduring city, but we seek one to come.” (Hebr 13: 14) As children of God and citizens of His kingdom, we sense a certain “homesickness” for a home we presently do not have. Hence our underlying, human sadness, which is always there, if only we stop for a bit to listen for it. It is not a dark kind of sadness for a person of faith, which is why we do, indeed, “sing” in the midst of our “foreign land.”
So in our churches we sing these Psalm-verses on the three Sundays preceding Lent, beginning with this upcoming Sunday, of the Prodigal Son, in order to get in touch with our human sadness in a healthy way. The psalm originally expresses the lament of the Jewish people in their captivity in a “foreign land,” Babylon (and at its “rivers,” the Tigris and Euphrates), after the conquest of Jerusalem in 586 BC. The conquerers “required songs” of their captives not in order to learn about their faith, but to mock it. In our own situation today, we have similar voices, calling us to “perform” or share of ourselves for the wrong reasons and inauthentically, hiding our sadness. But that kind of “song” brings no benefit either to ourselves or those who hear it. Because the light-filled sadness of a God-centered life is the very place from which all truly-inspired art comes. My “right hand” or God’s inspiration “withers” in all my creative work without it.
So today let me remember my true home, and not fear the productive sadness of longing for it.