Between Memory and Hope, We Rejoice

ruins of the templeThis Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Lent, is by tradition Laetare Sunday – Rejoice Sunday, named in light of the old Latin opening prayer for this Mass:

"Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her — be joyful, all who were in mourning — exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast…

This is a prayer indeed rich in consolation — rather explicitly evocative of the experience of coming home to one’s mother after a long absence. For us in Lent 2021, this is a welcome note of joy, homecoming after our own year of exile.

It may seem odd, then, that we have today the one and only appearance of the Books of Chronicles in the Sunday three-year cycle of readings. I and II Chronicles are among the Biblical books least likely to be familiar to Christians. Ambitious in scope, they begin with Adam and Eve, and end with the decree of king Cyrus announcing that the Jews in exile may return to Jerusalem and Judea. On the surface, Chronicles simply a cleaned-up version of the more vivid stories we read in I and II Kings, now told in a more boring form, the ups and downs of Israel and Judea under good and bad kings moralized centuries later. (The old Greek title for these texts is revealing, the Paralipomenon (Summary or, more unkindly, “Leftovers”). But the primary point, it seems, is to remember all that has happened, reading experience — as individuals, as community — as a history of human folly and God’s faithfulness, a sad but graced pattern that occurs again and again throughout history.

crocusesToday’s reading is from the last chapter of II Chronicles, which recounts a few more disastrous kings — Jehoahaz, Eliakim (aka Jehoiakim), the boy king Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. All are said to have mixed bad political and military skills — fighting against their powerful neighbors, the Egyptians and Assyrians, and losing again and again — with disregard for the word of God’s prophets, notably Jeremiah:

"All the leaders of the priests and the people became more and more unfaithful, following all the detestable practices of the nations and defiling the temple of the Lord, which he had consecrated in Jerusalem. The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent word to them through his messengers again and again, because he had pity on his people and on his dwelling place. But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the Lord was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. (II Chronicles 36.14-16)

King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon finally invades and thoroughly destroys Jerusalem. He tears down the city walls, and demolishes the holy Temple. Many are killed, and most citizens carried off to Babylon. It seems as if the history of the Jews has come to an ignoble end, in utter desolation. But this gloomy last chapter ends on a promising note:

"In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing. “This said Cyrus king of Persia: ‘All the kingdoms of the earth has the Lord God of the heaven given me, and He has charged me to build Him a temple in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever be among you of all His people, may the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up.’” (36.22-23 [verse 23 in the Robert Alter translation])

This is a comforting message, the exile is ending, and a remnant able to return home. And if these are the very last words of the Hebrew Bible — as is the case in one ancient ordering of its books — we are left hanging: “and let him go up.” But what then?

In JerusalemIf truth be told, what II Chronicles is not telling us is the most notable part. Chronicles is thought to have been written centuries later, well after the proclamation of Cyrus and the return of the people to Judea and Jerusalem. The Chronicler acts as if the decree has just now been given: the future is open, uncharted, yet to be written. But in fact more could said. He chose not to borrow, as he easily could have, from the Book of Ezra, which begins with this same proclamation and then recounts the return, the restoration of worship, etc. Chronicles tells us none of that happier history, rather leaving its readers hanging on edge, as if to ask themselves: What does happen when we get to return to Jerusalem? Readers had to think for themselves, to remember not only what happened according to Ezra, but also what was happening in their own time: have we come home, have we prospered in our native place? According to the Chronicler, the return from exile is begins again in the time of the reader, it has to be written again, precisely where that reader is: after the Bible, the revelation grows by memory.

As for ourselves: We hear this message on this 4th Sunday of Lent, after a year that has been for us, our nation, our church, our world a devastation, a long period of isolation and deprivation and, for many of us, also a time to look rather helplessly on the extreme suffering and loss of others. And yet, right now, in Lent 2021, hope is on the horizon. Covid seems to be losing its grip; the vaccines are becoming more abundant; the economy may be recovering; schools are welcoming back students; parishes are carefully but with hope opening up again as Easter approaches; we can come together again.

As part of our Lenten observance, II Chronicles invites us to rejoice — Laetare! — not in the abstract, but to remember all those bad kings and military disasters, all the disasters of 2020, but also to look forward, as if our homecoming and restoration are happening right now. The point is not blandly to predict what will happen, but to keep our eyes open, to see what God has in store for us in the spring, the Lent, of 2021.

vaccinationsKnowing that Holy Week and Easter (April 4 this year) are just a few weeks away is not a mere fact of the calendar, that Easter always  follows Lent, no surprise, nor just a sacred memory of what happened 2000 years ago. Let us imagine for a moment, with the Chronicler, how it would be were the Resurrection to happen anew for us in our time and place, if we too embrace our freedom and go up to Jerusalem. How shall we  live and pray and love, a year from now or five years from now? Our redemption — Christ leading us from death to life — is a work in progress, alive as it happens again in our honest memories of a painful past and honest hopes for a future return home, to live anew in freedom:

"Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her — be joyful, all who were in mourning — exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast…