This is our own translation of the maltreated Wednesday Audience of His Holiness —
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Psalm 136, 1-6
Upon the rivers of Babylon
Vespers – Tuesday fourth week
1. On this first Wednesday of Advent, a liturgical time of silence, vigilance, and prayer in preparation for Christmas, we meditate on Psalm 136, well known in the original Latin version, Super flumina Babylonis. The text evokes the tragedy suffered by the Hebrew people during the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., and the successive and consequent Babylonian exile. We are witnessing a national song of pain, marked by a dry nostalgia for that which has been lost.
This mournful invocation to the Lord to free his faithful from Babylonian slavery also expresses well the sentiments of hope, and of waiting for salvation, with which we have begun our path of Advent.
The first part of the Psalm (cfr vv. 1-4) is set against the background of the land of exile, with its rivers and canals: those, in fact, which irrigated the Babylonian plains, residence of the deported Hebrews. It is almost the symbolic anticipation of the extermination camps in which the Hebrew peoples – in the century we have just left behind – were subject to an infamous operation of death, which has remained an indelible abomination in the history of humanity.
The second part of the Psalm (cfr vv. 5-6) is instead pervaded by the loving memory of the lost city of Sion, still alive in the hearts of the exiles.
2. In the words of the Psalmist, this involves the hand, tongue, palate, voice, and tears. The hand is indispensable for playing the zither: but now this is paralyzed (cfr v. 5) by pain, in part because the zithers are hung from the willows.
The tongue is necessary to the cantor, but now it is stuck to the palate (cfr v. 6). In vain the Babylonian persecutors “required of us the words of songs… a hymn of the songs of Sion” (v. 3). The “songs of Sion” are “the song of the Lord” (vv. 3-4), they are not folk songs, or songs to be performed. Only in the liturgy and in the freedom of a people can they rise to heaven.
3. God, who is the ultimate arbiter of history, will know how to comprehend and welcome, according to his own justice, even the cries of victims, beyond the harsh accents that these at times can adopt.
We would like to entrust ourselves to St. Augustine for a further meditation on our Psalm. In it the great Father of the Church introduces a surprising note, of great relevance to the present: he knows that even among the inhabitants of Babylon there are persons who dedicate themselves to peace and to the good of the community, even if they do not share the biblical faith – not knowing, that is, the hope of the Eternal City to which we aspire. These carry in themselves a spark of desire for the unknown, for the highest, for the transcendent, for a true redemption. And he says that even among the persecutors, among the nonbelievers, there are persons with this spark, with a kind of faith, of hope, as much as can be possible in the circumstances in which they live. With this faith in an unknown reality, they are truly on a path toward the true Jerusalem, toward Christ. And with this opening of hope even for the Babylonians – as Augustine calls them – for those who do not know Christ, nor even God, and yet desire the unknown, the eternal, he admonishes us as well not to focus only on the material things of the present moment, but to persevere in the path toward God. Only with this greatest hope can we, in the right way, transform this world. St. Augustine says it with these words: “If we are citizens of Jerusalem… and we must live on this earth, in the confusion of the present world, of the present Babylon, where we do not reside as citizens but we are held as prisoners, we must, as the Psalm says, not only sing it but also live it: something one does with profound aspiration of the heart, fully and religiously desirous of the eternal city.”
He adds, with regard to the “terrestrial city called Babylon:” this “has persons who, moved by the love of it, work to guarantee its peace – temporal peace – not bearing any other hope in their hearts, reposing in this all their joy, with no other expectation. And we see them make every effort to make themselves useful to earthly society. Now, if they work with pure conscience at these duties, God will not permit them to perish with Babylon, having predestined them to be citizens of Jerusalem: on the condition, however, that, living in Babylon, they do not yearn for its pride, transient splendor, and unavailing arrogance… He sees their submission and he will show them that other city, toward which they must truly aspire and address every effort.” (Exposition on the Psalms, 136, 1-2: Nuova Biblioteca Agostiniana, XXVIII, Rome 1977, pp. 397.399).
And we pray to the Lord that in all of us this desire awakens, this openness toward God, and that even those who do not know Christ can be touched by his love, so that all of us together can be on pilgrimage toward the definitive City, and the light of this City can appear even in this our own time and in this our own world.