The readings today are all about salvation. The extract from
the Book of Chronicles gives us an account of the great exile known as the
Babylonian Captivity that occurred in 586 BC.
This was a most extraordinary event. After over four hundred
years of rule by the descendants of King David the Kingdom of Judah was
overthrown by Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon and the majority of the
population taken into captivity.
In many ways things in the Middle East haven’t changed that
much, there have been power struggles going on there right down the ages to our
own day. In the period we are thinking about the newly ascendant empire was
that of Babylon. Their King, Nebuchadnezzar, was well aware of the riches owned
by his weaker neighbour and soon decided to plunder Judah and enslave its
One sure way to keep a whole people in slavery is to destroy
their hope. Since the hope of a nation is often expressed in its religion
Nebuchadnezzar lost no time in destroying the Temple in Jerusalem. He was
convinced that this would send the people into despair and they would become
more easily manageable.
Nebuchadnezzar thought that the Israelites would conclude
that their God was weak and powerless since he could not even defend his own
But, of course, the very opposite happened. The Prophet
Jeremiah had foretold these events and the people came to understand that the
destruction of the Temple and their enslavement was not a result of the
weakness of God but due to their own infidelity. They interpreted the Captivity
as appropriate punishment by God for disobeying him rather than demonstrating
any inadequacy on his part.
The Captivity lasted seventy years and then God moved the
heart of the new ruler of Babylon, the Persian King Cyrus, to release the Jews
and to actually go so far as to rebuild the Temple for them.
This must have seemed quite incredible to the People of
Israel. They had been lamenting their lot in Babylon as is so eloquently
expressed in the Psalm given to us today. And then suddenly this new pagan king
expresses his belief in their God and says that he has been instructed by him
to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
This was surely a most extraordinary miracle and a profound
vindication of the God of their fathers; a faith strengthened and renewed
rather than extinguished by seventy years of captivity.
Just imagine their rejoicing as they returned home to
freedom. This can only be described as a profound experience of salvation for
We should remember that this wasn’t the first time that the
People of Israel had experienced captivity and exile. You will remember the
Exile into Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs and how Moses led the Chosen
People through the Red Sea and then through forty years in the desert until
they reached the Promised Land of Canaan.
These experiences of salvation were deeply ingrained in the
history and culture of Israel. You could not think of a better way of preparing
a race of people for the definitive saving event of all time –the salvation won
by Jesus Christ.
The only trouble with us humans is that we forget. We
continually forget even the most important lessons in life. And, as a people,
the Jews were no different in that they continually forgot the lessons of the
deepest experiences they had collectively endured.
Jesus explains this to Nicodemus. He tells him how what
Moses achieved was going to happen once again but in a greater and more
This time there would be no exile into slavery, no journey
through the desert, no glorious entry into the Promised Land. There would be no
captivity in Babylon, no sudden change of heart by a pagan Emperor.
No, this time the circumstances would be almost banal. A
squalid betrayal by a once loyal disciple, an arrest in a garden in the middle
of the night, a trumped up trial, the exchange of his life for that of a rebel
and the crucifixion by Romans on behalf of a corrupt priesthood.
We have been speaking about memory but there are different
kinds of memory. We are all familiar with short-term memory. We remember where
we left our car in the supermarket car park. But we don’t retain this
information for long otherwise our minds would be clogged up with a lot of
Then there is long-term memory. This is more difficult; we
often remember scenes from our childhood or significant events. Sometimes
events flood unbidden into our minds, things that we thought were long
And there is collective memory. This is the memory of a
whole nation or community. It is about the significance of their history. A
modern example would be the memory of the holocaust for the Jews, and indeed
also for the Germans. Keeping these events alive is important in order to
maintain the identity of the community concerned.
The events of the Exodus and the Captivity have been highly
significant for the Jews down through the ages. They were demonstrations of
their chosenness by God which was precisely what they considered made them
different from all the other nations of the earth.
These were powerful experiences of salvation which affected
a whole people for many generations. They were powerful demonstrations of God’s
love despite the infidelity of a considerable proportion of the nation.
And yet, by the time of Jesus, these things were being
forgotten. The priests especially were caught up in a highly clerical religion
which exploited the people and which ensured places of privilege from
themselves. This was accompanied by highly inappropriate collusion with the
Jesus tells Nicodemus what is about to happen. He reveals to
this important member of the Jewish hierarchy that God is now going to
intervene in a most spectacular way and is going to definitively bring about
salvation not merely for the Jewish people but for the whole human race.
Memory remains important, because it is our collective
memory which communicates this extraordinary intervention of God in the history
of the world to future generations.
We keep this memory fresh by constantly reading the
scriptures and by gathering together to celebrate the Eucharist each week.
These are the means by which the Good News of the Kingdom is kept alive in the
In the words of consecration Our Lord says: Do this in
memory of me. It is his memory we keep alive, it is his salvation that we
celebrate; it is his Kingdom that we look forward to so much.