They had been driven from their homes like cattle…
forced to march through rugged land to a foreign country.
We’re talking about the Chosen People, God’s own people.
That’s the scene that opens today’s Liturgy of the Word:
a refugee camp in a time of war.
Once, they were a nation strong and confident,
proud of their wealth,
and their military
and their religion.
But now, they are exiles…strangers in a strange land.
It’s an old story in the sorry history of humanity:
Cherokees being marched along the Trail of Tears…
Syrians fleeing the city of Aleppo…
Sudanese huddled in tents, holding their babies and scrounging for bread.
The Jewish Nation, God’s chosen people were now displaced people.
Now they owned nothing…nothing but hatred.
Hatred for their enemies.
But, yet, beneath their hatred and bitterness
was the memory of something deeper,
something sweet and beautiful:
It was their memory of home.
You heard about this harsh reality in today’s Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 137):
By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. On the aspens of that land we hung up our harps. For there our captors mocked us "Sing for us the songs of Zion!" But how could we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land?
In the time of their exile, the memory of the Temple,
and the beauty of the Temple liturgy,
tugged hard at their hearts.
But it was that memory…
that made it possible to hang on to “who they were.”
The sacred memory of those sacred songs
kept alive the hope of liberation…
the hope that someday they would again set foot in Jerusalem
and rebuild the House of God.
Many years ago, a soldier named Tim O’Brien wrote a famous short story
about his time in Viet Nam.
The story was titled, “The Things They Carried.”
It was unique insofar as it focused exclusively on the things
that the soldiers carried in their pockets and backpacks,
from Bibles, to letters, to cigarette lighters,
the things in their backpacks told the stories
of their fears, their hopes, their needs.
For those soldiers, the things they carried
helped them remember who they were and where they came from.
As you make your way down the road of life,
in a time when the culture around you is changing rapidly,
what items do you carry in your back-pack?
…in your wallet?
…in the glove compartment of your car?
…in the bed of your truck?
What do you have tucked away in your memories…
Of grade school or summertime jobs?
Places visited on vacation or places you once called home?
What do you carry with you, or within you,
that reminds you of “where you come from?”
Why bother with this?
Because such items from the past can shore up your hope for the future.
Step back a moment,
and think about some of the items you carry
that, in some sense, carry you:
That special person featured on your laptop screen-saver or on the background of your phone;
the ring on the chain that dangles from your truck’s rearview mirror;
the ball cap in your closet that you never wear, but was given to you by your godfather;
the rosary in your pocket;
the crucifix on your bedroom wall…
these things that you carry with you through life
which, in turn, carry you to a place of hope up ahead.
Friends, when God’s holy people were forced to live in an alien land,
the melody of a sacred song continued to ring in their ears
until the day
that the splendor of a new and magnificent Temple
danced before their eyes.
Friends, in this season of Lent,
each time we gaze upon the image
of Christ crucified on a cross,
the sinfulness of our world and the sinfulness of our own lives
become glaringly apparent.
Yet, beneath all the conflict in the world around us,
as well the pain that scars the hearts within us,
there exists the yearning for healing and restoration.
For the Jewish people, the memory of a sacred hymn
strengthened their faith and emboldened their hope.
As did the incidental items carried in the backpacks of those infantry soldiers.
The same dynamic work of grace is at work within the things we carry as well!
So, do not overlook the power in the cross you wear around your neck
or the image of your grandchild on your phone
or the flame of the candle that you light each night as you pray…
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.
Let the reminders of love that you carry with you through life
carry you back to Him.
May these reminders of love that you experience on earth
point the way to the divine love that awaits you in Heaven,
our ultimate hope and our eternal home.