“Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: The God of heaven has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem . . .” First Reading Cycle B
Someone has said we walk through life backwards. We see the past and the immediate present – to some degree – but tomorrow is a different matter. We’re never sure about tomorrow until it happens. Who could guess on September 10th, 2001 that the Twin Towers would collapse into a pile of rubble on September 11th? How could I have known in 1950 as I brooded over my studies that a confrere in Rome would have a breakdown which would lead to my taking his place and travelling down a path of studies that would change my life far beyond my imagining?
Back in the 500’s BC a Jewish poet composed Psalm 137: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion / . . . our captors asked us for songs . . . “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” / How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, . . . / May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you. This fellow’s face is toward the past, the homeland he knew, the Temple of Solomon, David and the Hebrew heroes of biblical history. He is confined among the Jewish exiles in Babylon (modern Iraq). Back in 587 BC the Babylonian armies crushed the kingdom of Judah, put an end to the dynasty of David, reduced Solomon’s Temple to rubble, deported the psalmist and his compatriots to a ghetto far away. His face was fixated on the past; his heart was broken.
But then came news reports out of tomorrow – rumors that a new Persian king named Cyrus was swallowing up one kingdom after another right up to the frontiers of Greece – and about to swoop upon the psalmist’s Babylonian captors. An unexpected tomorrow was becoming today. And what’s more, this Cyrus was not a monarch like the ruthless oppressors of the past (the Assyrians and Babylonians with names that were enough to scare anybody: Ashurbanipal, Esarhaddon, Nabopolassar). No, this Cyrus believed in the diversity of peoples. He favored returning the prisoners of former empires to their homelands where they might rebuild their temples, revive their worship, cultivate their land, all at Persian expense! They would not be allowed to become political powers again; but they could have Persian governors of their own ethnicity!
Who could have predicted this – a savior who was not a Hebrew, unfamiliar with Hebrew history, a worshipper of the sun god Marduk – a total alien, the kind condemned by the prophets - used by God to propel the Jewish people into an expanding tomorrow? Judah (as a political entity) would be transformed into Judaism – the former state would become a Church – guided by priests instead of corrupt royal families, focused on a new Temple and on a fresh collection of old religious traditions known as the Bible.
No longer would political boundaries be a problem. Jews could go anywhere in the world (which they did) bearing their Book, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem’s new Temple, held together not by politics but by a creed, their contemplation of true God and true behavior. Initially their defeat by the Babylonians, the destruction of their homeland and almost of their faith was something for this psalmist to lament – but now as he turned away from yesterday, surprised by how God was rearranging his tomorrow, he had reason to step into that future full of expectancy.
God works in strange ways – and as far as we are concerned in even stranger ways when the next stage of human liberation will be achieved by a nobody out of Nazareth who turns out to be the Grace of God made flesh.