One of the most extraordinary things about Christianity is that we worship a God of mercy. All the other world religions are the story of humanity reaching for God; Christianity alone is the story of God reaching out to humanity, with forgiveness and mercy and love.
We are a people of exile. Our entire world, our entire lives, are drenched in an awareness of that exile. Our home is in heaven with God; we live our whole lives here in anticipation of joining him. “But certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in a letter to his son. “We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupt, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of exile.”
The eloquence of today’s Psalm has fittingly been cast to music by generation after generation of Christians and even non-Christians, recognizing the echoes in their own hearts of the sheer despair of exile. “By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion… How could we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land?” How often do we feel that we are living in a foreign land?
We’re surrounded by a culture that’s antithetical to our knowledge of and trust in God. We live in a world overrun by humanity’s cruelty, greed, and lack of kindness. How often do we feel like the only response to that sense of being lost is to sit and weep?
But—and here is where the magic happens—it’s not permanent. It’s not forever. We have to go through exile, but St. Paul affirms that there is something dazzling in store for us: “God,” he writes, “who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ.” The Hebrew Bible describes a people in distress, a people of grief, a people waiting; and the New Testament is ringing with God’s response, the gift of love and mercy he extended to us by becoming human among us. There is no exile big enough or long enough or brutal enough to keep us from that love. And today’s Gospel proclaims that love with words that we all memorized as children, words that are written on our hearts: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life.”
We have walked long in darkness, and would no doubt continue to do so, but for God’s mercy and forgiveness, which flow directly out of his love for us. “For God so loved the world”—simple enough words, familiar enough words, but words that turn the whole concept of religion on its head. This God of the Christians doesn’t simply allow devotees to come to him; this God reaches out to the world, which he loves so much that he became a part of it. He experienced everything we experience. The sense of exile. The pain of feeling lost. The impulse to sit and weep by the waters of Babylon. He experienced it, and then he transcended it.
All throughout Lent, that is the promise we are holding onto. Back in Advent we read that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” The promise of that light was born at Christmas, and the fulfillment of that promise will rise from the dead at Easter. In between is Lent, a journey through exile. In his Collected Letters, C.S. Lewis wrote, “We are here in the land of dreams; but cock-crow is coming. It is nearer now than when I began this letter.”
It is nearer now than when I began this letter. It is nearer now than when we started on our Lenten journey. It is coming.
And exile will end.
Jeannette de Beauvoir works in the digital department of Pauline Books & Media as marketing copywriter and editor. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, where she studied with Adian Kavanagh, OSB, she is particularly interested in liturgics and Church history.