Friday, October 02, 2015

Exile: A Time for Reflection

By Colleen O’Sullivan

“From the time the Lord led our ancestors out of the land of Egypt until the present day, we have been disobedient to the Lord, our God, and only too ready to disregard his voice…  For we did not heed the voice of the Lord, our God, in all the words of the prophets whom he sent us, but each one of us went off after the devices of his own wicked heart, served other gods, and did evil in the sight of the Lord, our God.”  (Baruch 1:19, 21-22)

“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.  And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.”  (Matthew 18:3-5, 10)

Remember not against us the iniquities of the past; may your compassion quickly come to us, for we are brought very low. (Psalm 79:8)

Our first Scripture reading today is taken from the section of the Book of Baruch known as “The Prayer of the Exiles.”  In the introduction to the book, we are told that the book was written by the prophet Jeremiah’s scribe at some point after the people had been sent into exile in Babylon.  What a time of despair and adversity that must have been.

Yet, at the same time, the exile seems to have served as a mega “time-out” or retreat.  First there was shock and anguish, then grief so deep God’s people could no longer sing the songs of Zion (Psalm 137:2-3).  Maybe that was followed by anger.  But eventually, they began to look within and to reflect on their part in how they came to find themselves so far from home. 

I often think how right St. Ignatius of Loyola was in maintaining that ingratitude is the root of most sin.  Here, the people look back over their history.  Their God, through much maneuvering, freed them from slavery in Egypt.  But were they grateful?   Far from it.  Upon occasion, they were known to have wished they were back under Pharaoh or that they had died in Egypt.  God led them through the desert on their journey to the Promised Land.  By day they had a cloud to follow and by night a pillar of fire.  Were they grateful for these signs of the Lord’s presence?  Not very.   When they were hungry and thirsty, God supplied them with water to drink and manna to eat.  They complained about this, too.  They even used the gold of their jewelry to fashion an idol to worship.  Later, they refused to listen to the prophets.  As they said in their prayer, each one of them followed his or her own heart’s desires, which is what sin is all about - putting ourselves at the center of the universe and following our own dictates.

Yet paradoxically, God often is nearest when we are at our lowest.  The years of the exile became a time for reflection, for remorse, for seeking God’s forgiveness, for placing God back at the center of everything, for hope in God’s mercy and compassion.

In the Gospel reading, the disciples are wondering who will be the greatest in God’s Kingdom.  Jesus knows they’re way off track.  If we want to be great in God’s eyes, we’ve got to have God at the center, not ourselves.  Jesus tells them to be humble like the little child he pulls into the conversation.  The way to greatness lies in serving those who, like this child, are powerless in the world. 

Jesus talks about the little children’s angels in heaven.  No matter what age we are, we all have angels watching over us.  Angels are messengers from God.  Perhaps it was the whispering of the angels that convinced those exiled in Babylon to search their own hearts for the sin at the root of their separation from the Lord.

In spite of the multitude of artistic renderings of angels throughout the ages, I confess to having absolutely no idea what my guardian angel might look like, but I am sure that his or her quiet promptings have led me away from danger or sin and to the shelter of the Lord on more than one occasion.

When have you felt the presence of an angel in your life?

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