This is a strange time, isn’t it? Our routines, our diets, our outings, our socializing, our church-going, our screen time, our school, our work, our ways of caring, and so many other aspects of our ordinary, day-to-day lives are anything but normal. It is as if we’ve been uprooted and transported to a strange land and some days we wonder what the "new normal" will be like.
Maybe our feelings about this time are similar to the feelings of the Jews when they were herded off into captivity in Babylon. When they arrived, the Psalmist recalls:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? (Psalm 137:1-4 KJV)
At first, the Jews resisted and complained about their captive state. Then, the Prophet Jeremiah brought them a message from God, telling them to adjust and seek the welfare of the strange city in which they were forced to live. He promised to eventually bring them back to their homeland. "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope" (Jeremiah 29:11 ESV). We know that promise was fulfilled. We also know that, when they did return, what had been familiar a generation or two before was now strange and would never be the same again. They faced a new reality. And God gave them the wisdom and strength they needed to build again – not for the past, but for the future.
The Babylonian Captivity might be a metaphor for our life today in this strange situation. Like our ancient ancestors in faith, we can look forward to the strange new time ahead of us with confidence that God will be there too, showing us how to live in a new reality.
A colleague posted a comment the other day about something that occurred to him during his morning Bible study. He said that he came across a reference to the "new reality" of life in Christ and it occurred to him that term is preferable to the "new normal" we often hear about as we think what it will be like after the COVID-19 era is behind us. I, too, prefer that way of speaking and thinking about what lies ahead. After all, we are "new creatures."
W.H. Auden expressed it this way:
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
(W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio.)
Actually, for the last several weeks of life in the strange land of COVID-19, we haven’t sung the Lord’s song at St. Martin’s, have we? It’s strange for me to worship on a Sunday without either instrumental or vocal music. I’ve been trying to compensate by posting music on Facebook each afternoon. So, I’m glad to be able to announce that our new Organist/Choirmaster, Dr. Joseph Henry, has joined the staff and will be taking up the challenge of offering music in our online services in the days ahead. To begin with, we’ll have the organ. Later, we’ll add some hymns sung by a soloist. Maybe we’ll occasionally sing the Psalm. It is still not going to be the same. There will be an element of strangeness to it. But it will help us to move into the new reality that lies ahead, as God’s people have done so many times before, with faith, hope, and love.
The Very Rev'd Ron Pogue
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church
P.S. Here is a recording of the lines above by W.H. Auden. These are the verses of hymn 463 & 464 in the 1982 Hymnal of The Episcopal Church. It is sung by the The Choir of Royal Holloway in a setting by Carson Cooman.