Singing By the Waters of Babylon
Fr. Lawrence Farley
On the three Sundays prior to Great Lent, the Church sings the hymn “By the Waters of Babylon” at Matins, the words being drawn by Psalm 137. That psalm is a poignant lament, a heart’s cry wrung from despairing exiles as they languished in a foreign land. Their holy city Jerusalem had just been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., with maximum carnage enduring all the horrors of warfare in the ancient world—pregnant women ripped up, babies taken by the feet and dashed against rocks. Widowed and bereaved, they sat depressed by the rivers of their captivity, by the canals of the Tigris and the Euphrates, and listened as the captors demanded that they entertain them by singing some of the Temple songs they had heard so much about. This is too much to be borne. They would not take the sacred psalms which they once chanted in praise of Yahweh and sing them as drinking songs to entertain the pagans who had despoiled Yahweh’s Temple. This Psalm 137 was their emotional line in the sand: they were hanging up their harps once and for all on the willows which grew by Babylon’s rivers. No more singing at all, if they could not sing for the Lord. How could they sing the songs of the Lord’s Temple in a foreign land, far from the ruins of the Temple? Better that their right should whither than that it should play the harp like that. Better that their tongue should cleave paralyzed in their mouth than that it should sing like that. They would never forget what they had lost; never cease weeping for it. They would always remember Jerusalem and her Temple, and set it above their highest joy.
We Christians also live in Babylon, in a foreign land. As St. Peter reminds us, here we are sojourners and exiles on the earth (1 Pt. 2:11). Our true home is in heaven; our true patria is the Kingdom. Life in this age is exile, and Great Lent is a time for remembering this. In Great Lent, we look inward to see our sins, and we mourn for what we have become. We look at the world around us, and we mourn for where we are, far from our true home. The Church gives us this hymn as we cross the liturgical threshold into Lent, reminding us of how far we are from where we should be. It bids us to remember heavenly Jerusalem, and to set it above our highest joy.