I was sitting outside church last weekend, and I noticed two older boys bicycling around me. They were both masked, and my eyes aren’t so strong without glasses, so I did not recognize them right off. Then one of them stopped, put both his feet on the concrete, and said, “Hi Father, remember me from church?”
Squinting, I could see the color of his hair under his helmet, and his eyes and forehead, and it was enough. “Hi, Sean!” I said. I’m pretty sure we both had big smiles under our masks as we felt the joy of renewed connection.
But the comment made me sad. It was a sign of the times that this young man who joined his family every week for Sunday worship up until March 15, 2020, would now wonder if his priest even knew who he was anymore. “Remember me from church?” I wondered how many church members could be asking this question now of their pastors or of one another.
Because so many of our churches are now either closed for Sunday worship, or do so on a much more limited, physically distant, basis, I have been searching for an image from the Bible to help me interpret the meaning of these days in a way that will keep hope alive. I think I found it in Israel’s experience of exile.
In biblical history, there was a significant block of time, estimated at 597 BCE to 537 BCE, when the people of Israel, after being defeated in war, were forcibly removed from Jerusalem, and exiled to Babylon. From there, they experienced years of yearning, both for their homes, but more significantly for their Holy City, Zion (Jerusalem), where God dwelled. Psalm 137 is written about this this time of exile: “By the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept as we remembered Zion.” After giving voice to this pain of separation, the psalmist urges the people never to forget the holy city, saying, “If I forget Jerusalem, may my right hand wither; may my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not exalt Jerusalem above all my delights.”
I applaud people who have been able to find silver linings in this dark cloud of physical separation. For some, their homes have become more spiritual places, “domestic churches,” as families and individuals make sacred space for video worship or other prayer. Others tell me these months have been a time for deeper reflection on the meaning of life and heightened their desire to live for God. Similarly, many scholars trace the current form of Jewish faith with synagogues and rabbis to their time of exile over 2500 years ago, when they had to keep faith alive without their temple. Often, we grow through times of adversity.
Even with gains like these, I hope it does not get missed that there is a lot to miss. I hope we will not forget the goodness of handshakes, singing with full voice, coffee and doughnuts, and, mostly, the power of standing shoulder to shoulder with the People of God and realizing a deep mystical communion even with people we do not know.
Will we get back to those days? Will there come a time when faces once long-familiar become familiar again? To paraphrase Psalm 126, when we return from our exile, will it be so good that we will think we are dreaming? As a way of keeping the dream alive, this Advent I intend to pine for those days like a Jerusalem left behind.