The readings today are all about salvation. The extract from the Book of Chronicles gives us an account of the great exile known as the Babylonian Captivity that occurred in 586 BC.
This was a most extraordinary event. After over four hundred years of rule by the descendants of King David the Kingdom of Judah was overthrown by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon and the majority of the population were taken into captivity.
In many ways things in the Middle East haven’t changed that much, there have been power struggles going on there down the ages right up to our own day. In the period we are thinking about the newly ascendant empire was that of Babylon. Their King, Nebuchadnezzar, was well aware of the riches owned by his weaker neighbour and soon decided to plunder Judah and enslave its inhabitants.
One sure way to keep a whole people in slavery is to destroy their hope. Since the hope of a nation is often expressed in its religion Nebuchadnezzar lost no time in destroying the Temple in Jerusalem. He was convinced that this would send the people into despair and they would become more easily manageable.
Nebuchadnezzar thought that the Israelites would conclude that their God was weak and powerless since he could not even defend his own Temple.
But, of course, the very opposite happened. The Prophet Jeremiah had foretold these events and the people came to understand that the destruction of the Temple and their enslavement was not a result of the weakness of God but due to their own infidelity. They interpreted the Captivity as appropriate punishment by God for disobeying him rather than viewing it as constituting any inadequacy on his part.
The Captivity lasted seventy years and then God moved the heart of the new ruler of Babylon, the Persian King Cyrus, to release them and to rebuild the Temple. And it is this restoration that we are told about in our first reading today.
This must have seemed quite incredible to the People of Israel. They had been lamenting their lot in Babylon as is so eloquently expressed in the Psalm given to us today. And then this new pagan king suddenly expresses his belief in their God and says that he has been instructed by him to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
This was surely a most extraordinary miracle and a profound vindication of the God of their fathers; a faith strengthened and renewed rather than extinguished by seventy long years of captivity.
Just imagine their rejoicing as they returned home to freedom. This can only be described as a profound experience of salvation.
We should remember that this wasn’t the first time that the People of Israel had experienced captivity and exile. You will remember the Exile into Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs and how Moses led the Chosen People through the Red Sea and then through forty years in the desert until they reached the Promised Land of Canaan.
These experiences of salvation were deeply ingrained in the history and culture of Israel. You could not think of a better way of preparing a race of people for the definitive saving event of all time –the salvation won by Jesus Christ.
The only trouble with us humans is that we have a tendency to forget. We continually forget even the most important lessons in life. And, as a people, the Jews were no different in that they continually forgot the lessons of the deepest experiences they had collectively endured.
Jesus explains this to Nicodemus. He tells him how what Moses achieved was going to happen once again but in a greater and more definitive way.
This time there would be no exile into slavery, no journey through the desert, no glorious entry into the Promised Land. There would be no captivity in Babylon, no sudden change of heart by a pagan Emperor.
No, this time the circumstances would be almost banal. A squalid betrayal by a once loyal brother, an arrest in a garden in the middle of the night, a trumped-up trial, the exchange of his life for that of a rebel and the crucifixion by the Romans on behalf of a corrupt Jewish priesthood.
What we have been speaking about is mostly the memory of things long past but we know that there are different kinds of memory. We are all familiar with short-term memory. We remember where we left our car in the supermarket car park. But we don’t retain this information for long otherwise our minds would be clogged up with a lot of unnecessary data.
Then there is long-term memory. This is more difficult; we often remember scenes from our childhood or significant events. Sometimes events flood unbidden into our minds, things that we thought were long forgotten.
And there is collective memory. This is the memory of a whole nation or community. It is about the significance of their history. A good example would be the memory of the holocaust for the Jews of today, and indeed also in an opposite way for the German nation. Keeping these events alive is important in order to maintain the identity of the community concerned.
The events of the Exodus and the Captivity have been highly significant for the Jews down through the ages. They were demonstrations of their chosenness by God which was precisely what they considered made them different from all the other nations of the earth.
These were extremely strong experiences of salvation which affected a whole people for many generations. They were powerful demonstrations of God’s love despite the infidelity of a considerable proportion of the nation.
And yet, by the time of Jesus, these things were being forgotten. The priests especially were caught up in a highly clerical religion which exploited the people and which ensured places of privilege from themselves. This was accompanied by highly inappropriate collusion between them and the Roman invaders.
Jesus tells Nicodemus what is about to happen. He reveals to this important member of the Jewish hierarchy that God is now going to intervene in a most spectacular way and is going to definitively bring about salvation not merely for the Jewish people but for the whole human race.
Memory remains important, because it is our collective memory which communicates this extraordinary intervention of God in the history of the world to future generations.
We keep this memory fresh by constantly reading the scriptures and by gathering together to celebrate the Eucharist each week. These are the means by which the Good News of the Kingdom is kept alive in the world today.
In the words of consecration Our Lord says: Do this in memory of me. It is his memory we keep alive, it is his salvation that we celebrate, it is his Kingdom that we look forward to so much.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket