Some friends of mine had taken the long drive to visit the Deep South state in which they had grown up and from which they had long departed. They glided past featureless fields, abandoned and derelict farmhouses, shuttered main streets, and flat expanses of red clay littered with scrub brush and discarded fast-food containers.
Nothing along these highways would draw a single tourist. The woman turned to her husband and said something like, “If you didn’t grow up here, all you would see is ugliness. But I feel like I’m coming home.”
Home has a powerful hold on many of us. For some of us, home is the place we barely escaped with our lives and our sanity. We’ve spent decades shaking its cruel grip on our souls.
And yet for others, home remains the definitive place of nurture and identity. It is where they belong. To be away is to yearn to return. Not just to a street address. But to a spiritual womb.
Yearning for home is a recurring theme in the Hebrew Bible. And that theme emerges with special poignance when the Israelites find themselves in Exile.
In 597 BC the Babylonians had conquered Judah. Judah, along with its northern counterpart Israel, had once formed a single kingdom. After Solomon’s death, the formerly unified kingdom was divided in two. In 722 BC, the Assyrians annihilated the Northern Kingdom and scattered its inhabitants. Judah alone remained of the original kingdom.
With the invasion of the Babylonians, Jerusalem’s walls were breached, the Temple destroyed, and much of the population was deported to faraway Babylon. As happens so frequently to ethnic minorities and newly arrived foreigners, the Israelites were despised, harassed, and exploited by the citizenry and by the ruling powers of their new land.
The Israelite captives mourned the loss of their home. Psalm 137 records their sorrow and their despair in the hands of their conquerors: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when remembered you, O Zion” (Ps. 137:1)
Ripped from the land whose very soil nurtured their sense of worth and identity, the exiles nurtured the memory of the home they hoped against hope to return to one day: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill.” (Ps. 137:5)
For decades they reminisced about the smell of fresh-baked challah wafting through the air, the ring of children’s laughter in courtyards, the stylized haggling in crowded markets, the imposing strength of Jerusalem’s walls, and the awe-inspiring majesty of the Temple. One day, one day, they would see it and hear it and smell it again.
And then, the Persians laid low the Israelites’ Babylonian captors. King Cyrus II gave the exiles permission to return to Jerusalem. After fifty years, they went home.
And what they found was not the dream that had sustained them. Berlin at the end of the Second World War awaited them. Aleppo welcomed them back to its shell-shocked streets.
The returning Israelites picked their way through a chaotic heap of stones where Solomon’s Temple had once stood. Wild animals wandered through the breaches in the formerly mighty walls of the city. Brambles grew among the crumbled masonry of what had once been shops and bakeries and homes.
The concluding ten chapters of the trilogy of books that we call Isaiah was written in Jerusalem after the return from exile. The first was written before the fall of the Northern Kingdom. The second was written in exile.
The author of this third section, whom commentators sometimes call Third Isaiah, addressed the question that lingered in the hearts of all those who had returned: How will we ever pick up the pieces? How will these ruins ever be transformed into home?
How apt it is to begin our Lenten journey with the challenge of the returned exiles troubling our souls and the words of Isaiah ringing in our ears.
Lent comes around each year, ready or not. Generally, we are not ready. Our individual lives, our families, our neighborhoods, our city, our state, our nation, our world is just as messy as it was the last time somebody imposed ashes on our foreheads:
How will we pick up the pieces and make this planet home for everyone?
Here’s what Isaiah says:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free…?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them? (58:6-7a)
God urges us to repent of our age-old habit of striving to make a better place for ourselves in the world. Instead, our holy calling is to make the world a better place for everyone.
The Church recognizes that our march toward justice and wholeness, peace and reconciliation is long and arduous. Along the way we cannot help but grow weary and lose sight of our journey’s end. Lent gives us time to get our bearings, to fortify ourselves spiritually, to set our sights anew on the goal that God has set for us.
We are going home. Or more precisely, we are picking up the pieces so that this world of ours can be the nurturing and holy home that God intends it to be.