What predates this passage few chapters earlier is Nehemiah’s moving account of the sight of the ruined Jerusalem. Her gates are broken, her walls are fallen, her streets are abandoned. There is such an intense presence of pain and wounded awe when Nehemiah stays awake and overlooks the city at moonlight. This is one of the most moving parts of the Bible. This sight moves him to compassion; this sight moves God to compassion. A future is born during that night, when the human soul and the Divine Soul (‘God’s Glory’) contemplates a broken past.
Today’s passages are equally moving though in a different way. The people in Judah had forgotten to keep the Sabbath. They ‘were treading the winepress on the Sabbath, and carrying sheaves and loading them onto their donkeys, as well as wine an bunches of grapes and figs and all kinds of burdens; and they were bringing them into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day.’
Because of the long exile, people have forgotten to remember God’s covenant by giving thanks for the Creation which they are part of. The chain of this holy remembrance is broken… The danger could not be greater: the people cannot retain their identity (and knowledge of God) unless it keeps holy what God has already made holy.
This abyss of forgetting needs to be filled up. This life saving memory needs to be reignited. The recovery of Tradition and making Law-observance alive again is the core event of Jewish history. It equals a second creation. However painful it was for all parties to reinforce the forgotten practices, this re-learning the Sabbath day was the foundation for the future. It is from this effort of Nehemiah’s generation that we owe not only the survival of Jewish religion, but the revelation of Divine Love in Jesus Christ. This period of re-generation sustained the future wisdom, and further developments of the Jewish and Christian traditions.
In practical terms, the local synagogues and Christian parishes owe a debt of gratitude to this event. Their prayer life, their charity is rooted in this event of recovering the Sabbath.
And this is an ongoing task: our present celebrations of the Eucharist and the Sacraments, within the same dynamic, ground the life of future generations of believers. Faith without the present observance cannot remain alive.
These are verbal Icons, expressions of how the world is seen from Saint Augustine's..