Sunday, December 06, 2009

Exiles Come Home

One of the themes of Advent is woven into that great hymn from the fifteenth century, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

…And ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lonely exile…

Why would we sing something like that? Or for that matter, why would anyone sing it in the fifteenth century? It certainly is not a historically literal idea. Israel was not in exile waiting for the Son of God to appear—not if you define exile as living away from one’s homeland. When John Mason Neale penned those English words in the 19th century, he was picking up on something greater than a piece of history. He was giving voice to a human condition that people know about the world over.

Exile has never gone out of fashion nor lost its power. Numbers and estimates vary, but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees figures that about 16 million people were exiles from their countries last year. Add to that another 24 million who are exiled from their homes but who remain within their native countries. And that, of course, does not account for the people who are living in self-imposed exile, or who are driven from their homes for personal or family reasons.

But exile is not just a physical condition. And though we tend to think about it as a political situation, the roots of the idea of exile we can view most clearly in a religious or mythical context. Think of Moses. Think of Oedpius.[1] Such heroes as these experience exile and suffer the sense of alienation that exile brings. Running through the consciousness of humanity is the sense that we are in a real sense cut off from our spiritual home. That is the primary meaning of one of our primary stories, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It is not about history. It is about our condition. In a letter J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, “...but certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of exile.” This sense of alienation, of exile, is exactly what St. Augustine touched when he prayed his famous prayer, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” It is not just a Christian or Jewish preoccupation. Some native African religions have a story that once upon a time the gods dwelt at just about the level of the tree-tops. But something happened and they withdrew. People ever since have been in search of the vanished gods to reconnect with them.

I doubt very much that I have to sell you on the idea of exile, because I suspect you know as much as anyone does about it. We don’t go around every day thinking about Paradise Lost, to be sure. But you don’t have to live very long before you begin to sense that you are, in the words of spiritual writer Philip Zaleski, “living in the rift.” Whether you have moved to a new location, or changed jobs, or buried a parent, or lost a friend, or are battling illness, something has been lost. One of the purposes of Advent is to awaken this feeling, to bring it to consciousness, to invite us to embrace it and not run from it. That is the point of reading from the Book of Baruch today.

If you have ever heard of or paid attention to the Book of Baruch, you are a rare bird. It is not even in the Hebrew Bible. We have it in fact because someone translated a Hebrew text into Greek. It got combined it with other texts in that great ancient work called the Septuagint. Baruch dates most probably from the third or second century before Christ, at a time when Israel was experiencing not an altogether geographical but certainly a psychological and spiritual exile. Books like Baruch frequently look back to an earlier time for parallels, clues, and hope. So the author of Baruch takes the name of a prominent scribe in the time of the prophet Jeremiah, and retrojects some of his content into the period several centuries earlier when Israel was literally, geographically, and politically exiled. Jews—or Judahites—had been scattered all around the Mediterranean world and the cream of the nation had been deported to Babylon. Baruch in effect says to his hearers, “I know what you are feeling. You are feeling exiled. We have been there before.”

Now the problem with Baruch, if you read the whole book—short as it is—is that its theology is a kind of patchwork of the major religious thinking of its day. It is a kind of mild, none-too-original soup designed to work for as many people as possible across the entire spectrum of religious practice, liberals and conservatives alike. And maybe that itself is a sobering feature of this book about exiles. It seems to say that whether we are Democrats or Republicans or Libertarians, whether we are Anglicans or Baptists or Quakers or Unitarians, we are all exiles. None of us is exempt from the condition, and we are better off if we admit and embrace our fundamental unity. It is with a blaze of poetry that Baruch signs off, consoling the Jerusalem of Baruch’s day:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,

And put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.

Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;

Put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;

For God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven…

Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them.

Is it possible? Can we come home? Is there anyone who will lead us? Or must we remain exiled forever? There is a sense in which the sense of exile is not going to disappear. On a purely practical level, if it is not one thing it is another. Aging, for instance, brings with it increasing challenges and losses, each one of which can exacerbate the condition of feeling exiled, as when quite literally we are marooned amidst crowds when we lose our hearing or when we are alone in our apartments no longer able to walk freely or drive. Nor can we get away from the fact that some of the sense of the loss of paradise is the inescapable loss of innocence that comes with experience.

But there is another sense in which the words of Baruch are just as pertinent, just as alive for you and me as they could possibly have been for Jews in the time of the Second Temple. “For God will lead Israel with joy in the light of glory” is a promise made to you this day. How can you have it, feel it, taste it, see it? How can it be more than a pious idea? The brilliant historian of religion Mircea Eliade described what happens when exiles have a sudden alertness to an inner call. Eliade called it “nostalgia for Paradise,” “the desire to recover the state of freedom and beatitude” before the exile.[2] When we begin longing to make contact with this God who seems so remote—when we begin entertaining the possibility that maybe there is something that can heal and restore us, something that we thirst for—long for—crave with all our being, then we can begin singing the song of Baruch even as own our exile and search for the way out of it. “God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.”

There is the possibility that we can get stuck blaming our exile on various captors: the culture, politicians, the media, the collapse of religious consensus. There is the possibility that we can try to get out of exile by means of a new narrative furnished by science or art or some other religious tradition. We can always go down the exile aisle with sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, or some variation of them. But there is also the possibility that none but Emmanuel himself will come and ransom the captives that mourn in lonely exile. Take one step and God will take a thousand.[3] Once we realize that Emmanuel—Jesus--is right here, right now, the exile is not nearly so painful or so lonely. God is with us after all. Lost Paradise is regained. Exile ends. Rejoice!

[1] Vine Deloria, Jr., “Out of Chaos,” in Parabola, x:2 (May 1985), 14.

[2] Philip Zaleski, “Living in the Rift,” Parabola, vol. x, number 2 (May 1985), 6.

[3] Ibid., p. 13.

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