Restoring the Past
It is time to go home...well, sort of...in that this generation raised in exile has never been home. They have heard the stories, and struggled to keep the faith and the traditions of that first generation of exiles; but only the aged have any memories of what home was like. And those memories? They are the memories of children, hazy and at best colored more by emotional connections than by a more mature eye that balances the ideal with the real.
When Cyrus of Persia writes his letter, granting permission for the people of God to return from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem, it is a remnant raised in exile that is given the task to restore the Temple. It shouldn't be too difficult a thing to accomplish...aside from the material challenges of: never having lived in the land in this generation, needing to convince the remnants who were left living in the rubble of Jerusalem that rebuilding the Temple is a good thing, while coming up with the resources to accomplish that task, AND restoring a society broken and shredded by conquest....
Restoring the past is no easy task. To begin with, you can't. You cannot restore what was to the present. You might present a recreation, or you might restore something to the best of your ability as a community, but it will never be what it was. Nor will we be the same as we were. We can mend a foundation, fix a roof, restore a model of worship...but if we are not also willing to release a nostalgia for what was, then we will never really be able to inhabit the present or embrace any possible future.
In the midst of the restoration of the altar and the rebuilding of the Temple foundation, there is this little portion of text that to me is quite telling. When the people see the first efforts of the restoration, most shout with joy. Some of the aged, though, who remember what was lost cry out in sorrow and grief. All of that emotion is lost in the texture and volume of people shouting out, but the compiler of Ezra wants us to see the tears of grief running through the wrinkles of those who are realizing that another age is really gone, even as a new one begins. That poignancy should bring us up short. That realization that we can't once again have and possess the worship, the space, the story...all that was...is and should be heartbreaking.
It is a reminder that we can't press the rewind button and go back to a time we presume was better than now. It is a provocation that the present is something that we who did inhabit the past need to hand over to those who will create the future. It is a moment for us to realize that, really, the worship and service we are called to offer up to God in the proclamation and witness of our faith is not (and never really was) about us. It's about building it up, giving it over and living fully into the present moment. THAT is the only moment we truly have with God and with each other.
That moment finds us at times standing in the rubble of what was, as at the first attempts Israel makes at restoring the Temple. That moment finds us celebrating the fulfillment depicted in the psalm, when all the joy and hope of what might be comingles with the best of our memories of what was.
Always, that moment should be for us an opportunity seized to model to the world and to our neighbors the faith we have in the knowledge of God's love for us, and for our confidence that God is not finished with us, not yet by a long shot.
Restoring things that have been lost is so important. Preserving the hard work and witness of past generations really does give us clearer knowledge of ourselves...but restoration is not and never should be done simply for its own sake. If restoration is taken on with the focus being the provision of resource and support for those who are to come (and not for the sake of nostalgia)...well, then, we are getting it right.
It doesn't change the fact that more than a few tears will be shed by all of us as we remember all that has passed in the course of time in our lives, but it does remind us that God is always calling on us to keep moving, ever forward...onward into a calling that is always being transformed by God's abundant grace, even as we labor to restore what is broken to good use in the present.