‘Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.’
(From Mending Wall by Robert Frost)
When Nehemiah heard that the walls of Jerusalem lay in ruin he was devastated: On hearing this I sank down and wept; for several days I mourned, fasting and praying before the God of heaven. (1:4)
Why would he do this? Why would he react so strongly?
Nehemiah was a just man, faithful to the Law and deeply conscious of himself as a member of God’s Chosen People. In the desecration and destruction of the walls he saw the sins of his people and was deeply ashamed. He fell down before the Lord and on behalf of the People he prayed: I confess the sins of the sons of Israel which we have committed against you: I and my father's House have sinned. We have acted very wickedly towards you: we have not kept the commandments, laws and customs you laid down for Moses your servant. (1:6-7)
For Nehemiah the integrity of the city of Jerusalem, and particularly the integrity of the walls and gates, was an image of the integrity of the People and, clearly, this was in tatters. Moreover, without the integrity that comes from obedience to the Law of Moses the people were no longer the People; they were without identity.
We could pause here and ask ourselves how we respond to the images of death, destruction and despair we see on our television screens so often today? What would a Tutsi or a Hutu make of the piles of corpses littering the Rwandan countryside? What would an Iraqi or Pakistani see in the mangled bodies strewn around the crater made by a suicide bomber? What do we see in the overflowing garbage bins of abortionists, if not men and women who have forsaken their God and put themselves in his place? This was the cruel sword which pierced Nehemiah’s heart two and a half thousand years ago and the desolation experienced today by every serious Catholic on seeing the offences, great and small, committed against the merciful God.
Nehemiah, and his compatriot Ezra, set about restoring Israel’s integrity and thus their identity. Nehemiah’s mission was that of rebuilding the city walls and gates, while Ezra’s mission was to move the People to recommit themselves to live the Law of Moses and to worship God according to the prescriptions of the Torah. In other words, they set about purifying lifestyles and restoring the liturgy. Ring any bells?
It should not surprise us that from the first moments of the decision to rebuild the walls there was opposition: When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the walls he flew into a rage, beside himself with anger. What a startlingly different reaction to that of Nehemiah on hearing of the plight of Holy City!
He ridiculed the Jews and in front of his kinsmen and the wealthy men of Samaria he exclaimed, 'What are these pathetic Jews trying to do?... Do they expect to finish in one day? Do they think they can put new life into these charred stones, salvaged from the heaps of rubble?' (3:33-34)
Nehemiah’s opponents, some of whom were Jews themselves(!), tried to stop him by every means at their disposal. Any bishop, priest or layperson who has resolved to restore some sense of the sacred to our noisy, horizontal liturgies will recognise the tactics. Sanballat begins with anger. This is often enough to frighten off the weak. Next comes public ridicule, which no one likes, and which often deters from standing up for what they know to be right those who love their popularity.
Ridicule is followed by personal insults (these pathetic Jews) and a questioning, not only of their ability to finish the task (Do they expect to finish in one day?) but of their very grasp on reality (Do they think they can put new life into these charred stones, salvaged from the heaps of rubble?)
We understand that Nehemiah saw, not charred stones and heaps of rubble, but bruised, demoralised and despairing men and women especially chosen by God to form a Chosen People. With the Lord there are no heaps of rubble; there are only souls waiting to be redeemed.
As the work neared completion opposition grew. Physical violence was planned but Nehemiah avoided falling into the traps set for him and finally the work was completed. God is always on the side of restoration.
Let us turn again to today’s First Reading: … all the people gathered as one man on the square before the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses which Yahweh had prescribed for Israel. Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, consisting of men, women, and children old enough to understand. This was the first day of the seventh month. On the square before the Water Gate, in the presence of the men and women, and children old enough to understand, he read from the book from early morning till noon; all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. …the people were all in tears as they listened to the words of the Law.
We have come back to our beginning - the weeping Nehemiah. But now it is not Nehemiah who weeps, it is the People. They have been restored and renewed and they cry - but their restorer bids them be joyful, as would one day the true Restorer cause us to cry out Alleluia!