Each Sunday during the current Covid-19 lockdown, while churches and places of worship have been forced put a halt to congregational worship, The Reverend Paul Hunt, priest-in-charge in Hastings Old Town, will offer some words of support and an opportunity for the community to reflect on the challenges we face.
Disco dancing is not something which Old Town residents might normally associate with their priest-in-charge but back in 1978 I had a summer job teaching Italian students in the crypt of St Mary Star of the Sea and on the final evening we had a meal and disco in Fagin’s restaurant on the corner of the High Street and George Street. The ‘hit’ single that summer – and at the disco – was Rivers of Babylon by Boney M.
I was thinking of the lyrics when reflecting upon the Covid-19 pandemic and our current lockdown. The lyrics are taken directly from Psalm 137 in the Bible with an additional verse from Psalm 19: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion… How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
What is this verse about and how does it relate to Covid-19?
Strange as it seems, the Boney M song goes back over 2,500 years. At the beginning of the Sixth Century BC, Jerusalem (Zion) had been captured by the Babylonians and many of the leading citizens had been taken away to Babylon as exiles. There, by its rivers, they sat down and wept when they thought of their homeland.
But they were not simply homesick; their whole understanding of life had been destroyed. Their most important building, the Jerusalem Temple where the God of Israel dwelt, had been destroyed. Had God deserted his people? Were the Babylonian gods more powerful? And now they were in a ritually unclean strange land where they could no longer sacrifice to their God and the future was uncertain. How could they sing the Lord’s song anymore?
Returning from our exile to a new and better ‘normal’.
The sudden dislocation of those Babylonian exiles is now ours. Past ways of life, once taken for granted, have gone and the future is unclear. We too can sit and weep as we mourn the loss of past certainties.
But Psalm 137 also urges its readers never to forget Jerusalem. In 538 BC the exiles were allowed to return and the Temple was re-built. That exile by the rivers of Babylon was a seminal point in the development of Judaism as we know it today and that development eventually became, in effect, the new and better ‘normal’.
The time is coming when we shall no longer need to sit and weep at the loss of our pre-Covid world.
The pandemic will pass, difficult as that might seem as we enter another lockdown.
However, there is the danger that our nostalgia for our lives before Covid causes us to forget that our world was far from perfect. Let us commit to play our part in ensuring that we return from our Covid exile to a new and better ‘normal’.
The Reverend Paul Hunt is the part-time priest-in-charge of St. Clement’s and All Saints in the Old Town. St. Clement’s will be open from 11.30 a.m. to 1.30 p.m. every day during lockdown for anyone who wants to pray or simply be quiet and reflect or meditate.