29 May 2020 - by Dr Bill Leadbetter
When the nations of Judah found themselves marooned in Babylon, exiled from homeland, from Temple, and even from God (so they thought), they sang hymns of despair. Psalm 137, often quoted for the poignancy of its sentiments (“How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”), ends on a sour note of anger that does not often make it into the more popular versions of the poem. The threnodies of the Book of Lamentations, express the same sense of loss and alienation, and, in the structure of the Old Testament lie between Jeremiah, the last prophet of the Davidic kingdom, and Ezekiel the first prophet of exile.
Lamentations sets a scene for us and invites us to imagine ourselves forcibly divorced from our homes and sent – under guard – to live away permanently from all that we hold dear. This feeling is not so unfamiliar to many of us at the moment. Over the past few months, all of us have experienced the social cost of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most acutely, we have been unable to meet together as we have been accustomed to do and must, instead, make do with virtual church. Pastoral visits by telephone, meetings by one of a number of internet applications, worship through Facebook or YouTube: these things have become our new reality as we try, from our dens or couches or computer hubs to keep things as normal as possible. This is our exile. It is not from our home; it is in our homes. But it is from our church, our community of faith and fellowship.
In this historical moment, we might do well to turn to Ezekiel. We are on our couches, after all: what else could we do? Ezekiel turns the sow’s ear of exile into the silk purse of hope. He affirms the lordship of God, and inspires the exiles with a confidence that this is not forever, that there will be a return to the land, a new temple, a new holiness. The prophet’s vision of the valley of dry bones restored to life is important as an image of resurrection. For Ezekiel, the sad bones of the exiles shall live again, renewed and transformed in a land recreated by God.
This is a clue to our own exile. As for the Israelites in Babylon, it must surely mean something more to us than simple endurance. Ezekiel called the exiles to a new holiness. He writes at 18.21 “But if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live: they shall not die”. Such a repentance, a changing of mind – is not something that can simply be willed. He sees it as the act of a gracious God: “I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances, Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors: and you shall be my people and will be your God” (36:27-8).
This is key to Ezekiel’s idea of transformation. We do not change ourselves. It us God who does he changing. We must merely be open to the Spirit and not fearful of the new possibilities that the change will bring.
Fifty years after they were transported to Babylon, the exiles returned. It was not their doing. It was made possible by the Persian King, Cyrus and, as second-Isaiah writes, the gift of God. We too will return. We shall be restored to our communities in God’s good time. Our church buildings will again fill with light. What, then, will we bring to our renewed communities of faith? If it is a mere gladness to see one another again, then that is a puff of emotional smoke that shall be gone after the first Sunday back.
Ezekiel shared with the exiles a vision of a new Jerusalem and a new Temple. Perhaps we in turn might like to think of what our own return to our church buildings and communal worship will look like. Like the people of Judah in Babylon we have been denied our home, but our home is not the building. It is one another. That is why we miss our gatherings so acutely: it is not just that we are away from our friends; it is more that we are away from our sacred community.
What we mostly do together is worship. In doing so, God is made real to each of us through both our individual and our collective participation in the liturgy. While we try and keep things going on-line through virtual worship, that worship is still virtual – that is, because we are become spectators or viewers, our participation is limited. We can check our phones during the Gloria, or make a cup of tea during the sermon.
Christian worship has always been collective. The earliest Christian communities met together, and very consciously, as “church”. Ever since there have been Christians, we have sung together, learned together, prayed together, and experienced the sacramental reality of the divine together. We are now learning just how important that “together” word is, because we are forced to be apart. For it is together that we are, most powerfully, the Body of Christ.
Christian worship also goes far beyond participation in formal church services. The word “service” here gives the clue. It is the English translation of the Greek word leitourgeia, which means, literally “public works”. In ancient Greece and Rome, wealthy donors would perform liturgies for their communities and that might mean the renovation of a public building or the city walls. It was a thing done to benefit the general community. Acts of care and compassion, things done in the service of others, are every bit as much acts of worship as prayers and hymns and spiritual songs. Christ comes to us both in the Eucharist and in the eyes and needs of others.
The Body of Christ is in bits all over the world, but we are beginning to come together again. Just how we do this, and what things look like when our exile is done, depends on how much time we spend on the sofa with Ezekiel, dreaming of a community of renewed purpose and praying to God to let us make it happen.
Dr Bill Leadbetter is a Cathedral Scholar at St George's Cathedral, Perth, an Adjunct Associate Professor in History at the University of Notre Dame, Fremantle and an Adjunct Associate Research Professor at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Charles Sturt University.