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:
- We are still at war and seem to be preparing for another one.
- Many of the working class people of our nation are still one illness or one expensive car repair away from losing the roof over their heads.
- Disparities in income and racial injustice tear at the fabric of our common life.
- Mass shootings—even on school grounds—no longer hold our attention. They are simply too common.
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.
Thank you for taking me on another incredible journey Father Jake. You have such a gift to take us with you on your journey with your words and inspiration. Additionally, I really enjoyed the historical aspects on the book of Isaiah and the verses you shared. For they are so poignant. It is one of my most favorite books and through your words, I have learned from it again. We are all in need of reconciliation, as individuals, as communities, as states, as countries, and as the world. Thank you for all you do to inspire myself and others.
I’m really glad this was helpful. Thank you for coming along with me!
Lent as a time of home going – finding our true home. Confession is finding the map for the journye?
What an insightful approach to confession! Thanks Ann!
Boy. You really do have to keep the long view in mind. The long, long view. It’s so easy to slip into disappointment and despair. Thank you for this shot of fortification.
We just have to keep encouraging each other take the next step.
Ash Wednesday greetings reverend . Home is where the heart is .
Amen! And Ash Wednesday greetings to you, too!
You are very right Susan . There is so much negative distraction and disppointment in the world , you have keep Luke 12:34 in your thoughts constantly to get through the day . I think reverend Jake is really good at finding modern analogies for biblical text .
Yes. He excels at that.
Thank you for the Blessing in this. Onward and upward! Thank you Father Jake for taking me out of self and having a bigger vision. Ann