…proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘The Lord has saved his people, the remnant of Israel.’ (Jeremiah 31: 7)
Jeremiah declares a prophecy of renewal and he does so in difficult times, in the darkest of days when the people feared for their futures and even for their lives. It appeared that the Lord had abandoned his people and that he was favouring the oppressor. And the oppressor could be one of a number of states: Assyria which had long dominated the political arena, Egypt whose power was once again on the rise and of course the emerging Babylonian empire which before long would sweep everything from its path: the ruthless ‘Chaldeans’.
Jeremiah is clear in his prophecy that the problem lay with the unfaithfulness of Israel which had toyed for too long with the deities of other nations in return for imagined favours. Only a return to the Law and an exclusive worship of God would pave the way for salvation at the Lord’s hand. Jeremiah’s prophecy is never easy – never just words. He accepted God’s call when he was still young and remained unmarried, living a celibate life, as the only way to live in the days before God would bring catastrophe on the people by the arm of Babylon. We might pick up a similar thought from St. Paul who urged his readers to prepare for the trials that lay ahead.
Jeremiah sees Israel as a mere remnant, all that remains of the chosen people, battered by the opposing forces of the day, forced to turn this way and that to gain favour and to avoid disaster. In the midst of all of this he urges the people to cry to the Lord for salvation. The result will be the return of the northern kingdom following the collapse of Samaria and of those who have been exiled from the land at the whim of foreign rulers or their own destitution. The land will be healed. Even those who are broken – the blind and the lame – and those who might struggle – expectant mothers and women in labour – are to return. Those who are vulnerable will be included. Isaiah has similar thoughts about the time of the Messiah (Isaiah 61).
What is of particular note in this passage is the use of what is sometimes called the ‘prophetic perfect’, a device which declares the certainty of the fulfilment of hope and promise. As the people are bidden by the prophet to cry to the Lord for salvation, they are also bidden to make their praises heard. Praise expresses confidence in the Lord, that he will perform the deed for which the suppliants – his people – plead. Here is a declaration that the Lord will do all that he has promised and more: behold, I do a new thing! Praise in anticipation is justified because of the creative and redemptive goodness of God.
How might we read the story of the birth at Bethlehem in the light of Jeremiah’s words and his use of the ‘prophetic perfect’? At a human level there is so much that is unsurprising about the birth of Jesus. He is born of a human mother in awkward circumstances. His adoptive father Joseph has been required by the authorities to travel to his place of birth – under the circumstances a considerable distance. The journey was arduous and dangerous, especially for a woman close to her time. None of this was ideal. On arriving at Bethlehem there is nowhere to stay and only the most primitive arrangements can be made for the birth. Not ideal at all, but not that different on the human level to countless others: no sanitation, not medicines, no security – just dirt and its attendant risks.
And yet we read this story at another level too. We see the fulfilment of ancient prophecy in the birth of the child and we note with delight and no small measure of satisfaction that it is accompanied by signs of divine intervention: rare astral sights; sundry visitors representing the breadth of humanity, both Jew and Gentile; angels and choirs of the heavenly host. Our Christmas carols rightly make the most of all these things and at our best we include both the human and the divine in our praises recognising that the child is himself both human and divine. The two are interwoven.
Recognising that this is how God works, both to Jeremiah and the Evangelists, we are permitted to see how the threads might be woven in our own lives. We know that we are human and that life can be risky, dirty and sinful – or just plain dull. Yet we also see in our lives of faith something of the world of prophecy pointing to the divine. We can see through faith that God is working his purpose out in our lives, that the divine power is present even if we have barely noticed it or dulled its edge with our wilfulness and error. Such a thought should enliven our prayers and praises because we know that God is with us and that he will keep his promises. Even after a difficult year and despite fears for the future we can ask to see how the human and the divine are woven together in our lives – and the lives of others – and know, along with Jeremiah, exactly what God will do:
I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble (v.9)
May you know God’s presence anew this year and may he bless you in all your endeavours begun in his name. The Lord grant all your petitions.
Father Andrew Burton SSC
3rd January 2021
Image by Debby Hudson on Unsplash.