In the late 1970’s the band Boney M had a hit single with the song ‘The Rivers of Babylon’. The song is based on Psalm 137 in the Bible and expresses the sadness of the Jewish people who found themselves in exile away from their homeland in Babylon in the sixth century before Christ. Exile was hard enough for them but the real source of their distress was not being able to worship in the temple in Jerusalem: ‘Beside the streams of Babylon we sat and wept at the memory of Zion, leaving our harps hanging on the poplars there…Jerusalem if I forget you let my right hand wither! May I never speak again if I forget you! If I do not count Jerusalem the greatest of my joys’.
During this time when we cannot gather as a faith community to worship in our local churches, there is a resonance we feel with the sentiments of this psalm. I felt this same sadness acutely, ironically on Easter Sunday, when celebrating Mass of the Lord’s resurrection looking down on empty pews. On the most joyful and important day of the Church’s year, we felt the sadness of not being able to gather in our places of worship. Yes, modern technology has softened the blow by livestreaming many liturgies from our churches but we know that it just isn’t the same. We want to be there. We want to be together. We want to be back home. What this experience brings home to us in these days is the joy of worship and how we miss that joy by not being able to worship as a community in our local church.
This theme of joy that comes from worship and praise of God is prominent in the Bible, especially the psalms. For example, in Psalm 84 the author exclaims: ‘How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord God of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God…Happy are those who live in your house, forever singing your praise’.
Here is a psalm that is almost panting with excitement and anticipation about being able to go worship in the temple. For us today, we might consider this excitement to be exaggerated for we rarely got that excited about the prospect of going to church before. But here in the psalms is a taste of how important it was for the Jews to worship and to worship in God’s house. For them, it was a moment of great joy to do so and an source of extreme sadness to be unable to gather there in prayer.
Similarly in Psalm 122, the author prays: ‘I was glad when they said to me, “let us go to the house of the Lord!”’ Again, it speaks of an inner joy and anticipation of coming for worship and prayer. It also speaks of going together, being invited by someone else, summoned to share in something uplifting and to taste the divine.
Reading these psalms, the thought struck me - how wonderful it would be if everyone had at least something of that excitement when eventually we assemble again for prayer in the future! That when we can safely gather again for Eucharist, that we come to worship God with renewed hearts of joy and gratitude for the freedom and possibility to be there together in God’s house! Unfortunately, before the pandemic crisis, we often gathered with a sense of obligation, endurance or habit while missing out on the joy that is the freedom to worship and the privilege to worship in our own church. Or worse still, we didn’t gather at all. This is the stark reality for about 75% of baptised Catholics. Weekly worship with the faith community is not part of their weekly lives. This is not to blame anyone but what it does point to, based on the psalms we have looked at, is the need to rediscover the joy of worship.
The psalms convey joy and gladness at coming to the house of the Lord because there we meet a God who is love, who is life and who wishes us to experience the joy of praising him. For when we experience the love of God and respond to it by love in return, the fruit is joy that comes from prayer. For we do not worship a god who demands our worship as a servile debt to him. No. Our God and Father draws close to us, wants us experience him, know him and invites us to ‘taste and see the goodness of the Lord’ (Ps. 34:8). And when we do, then worshipping Him will not be something we have to do but something we want to do, with every fibre of our being. And when we all rediscover our lives of worship then we will come to know what we have been missing – on our knees before the source of all love, beauty, truth and goodness who is God. In fact this is what we pray at the Mass itself when we say: ‘It is our duty and our salvation always and everywhere to give you thanks and praise’ (Preface to Eucharistic Prayer). Giving God thanks and praise is not only a duty but our salvation too – it saves us by drawing us deeper into a relationship with the living God.
Friends, we miss the experience of being together in our temple which is our local church. We miss it terribly. Yet I believe that in God’s overall providence, He is teaching us something valuable in all this. First, that we took our religious freedom for granted before. We are now experiencing what thousands of persecuted Christians experience each week, sometimes for years after attacks on their churches and threats to their safety. Second, that we may not always have had the joy of worshipping God uppermost in our minds and hearts when gathered for prayer before this crisis. And finally, our hope and prayer is that when this long fast from public worship is over, we will gather again in our beautiful churches in even greater numbers than before and with even greater joy. By the rivers of Babylon we now weep away from our temple. But the joy of worship will be ours again. Deo gratias.