It’s still Christmas. The rest of the world may have stopped singing Christmas carols, but we Episcopalians haven’t. Our Crèche, our Nativity Scene, won’t be complete until January 6, which, regardless of what Congress might do this year, is still the Feast of the Epiphany on our calendar. It’s still Christmas today.
But maybe it doesn’t feel like Christmas. This year I wouldn’t be surprised if you said that none of the twelve days felt like Christmas. Some Christmas this has turned out to be! If you’re on Facebook, you’ve probably seen one of those nativity scenes where the shepherds and the Magi have to stand single-file, six feet apart, wearing masks, waiting their turn to greet the Holy Family for a few seconds before having to move on to avoid contaminating the air. It’s that kind of Christmas.
On Christmas Eve I joined my home parish’s online celebration and found myself crying as we started singing to a previous year’s recording of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” I wasn’t just missing our traditional midnight mass, though I was definitely missing that. There was still a hint of joy, not just loss. But it was a moment where I was utterly overwhelmed with all we have been through since March. Some Christmas this has turned out to be!
Maybe 2021 will be a better year. It wouldn’t take much, would it? Maybe the new vaccines will make it safer to gather. Maybe those of us most in need will return to at least a living wage. Maybe the grace of God‘s reconciliation will dawn upon us in a new way as the people of this Diocese continue the hard work we’ve challenged ourselves to do this year on dismantling racism. Maybe our nation will get over debating who won the election and start to move on. Maybe we’ll stop vilifying one another so much and start listening more. (In my book, that would be a miracle!) But all we know for sure is that it won’t be 2020 anymore.
With all this uncertainty, it’s appropriate that some of our readings for this Sunday are a bit more somber.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph—no, I’m not swearing—Jesus, Mary, and Joseph didn’t get to celebrate Jesus’ birth for long. Instead, says Matthew, they had to become undocumented immigrants—twice! At least they never got separated at either border. It’s only mentioned in passing, so it’s easy to overlook the fact that the first few years of Jesus’ life were those of a migrant family living in fear of the powers that be. Some Christmas that turned out to be!
But the passage that speaks to me most directly this year is from Jeremiah.
If we had a contest for prophets of doom, Jeremiah would win first prize, hands-down. We even have a term for a message like his—it’s called, fittingly, a “Jeremiad,” a long-winded diatribe against a society’s moral failings that will lead to disastrous consequences.
Jeremiah was indeed really into long-winded diatribes. He kept denouncing his people’s “Make Judea Great Again” party for their moral hypocrisy. He told them their efforts were bound to backfire. The nation would be torn apart, the temple destroyed, and its leaders would be deported to Babylon. Almost everybody hated him. He was unpatriotic. Like Anthony Fauci, he kept saying that things would get much worse before they got better. And the people in power were furious.
But he turned out to be right. Even he wound up living in exile. And he didn’t live to see things get better.
We need to remember all that about Jeremiah and his overall message when we hear today’s lesson. It’s totally out of character. He interrupts his forecast of coming disasters with surprising words of hope and comfort, “dreaming impossible dreams” of a happily-ever-after homecoming.
With all the available evidence pointing toward years of devastation and hardship, Jeremiah refuses to to give up. He might have settled for a day when things start to get a little better. But even that wasn’t enough. Instead he insists on living into God’s promise of a day when even the most vulnerable among us will be cared for, when none of us are in danger of pandemics, when those of us grieving most deeply will be consoled, when all of us will start partying with abandon as we have never partied before, with nobody fretting about the bottom line.
While Jeremiah lived, God’s promised day remained just that—a promise. But he lived into it anyway. He bought land at a time when any sane financial advisor would have told him not to. But it wasn’t because he hoped to benefit from his investment. It was just to demonstrate his refusal to give up hope. It kept his hope alive. It was a foretaste of that promised day. It sustained him as he continued to agonize over God’s insistence that he keep preaching sermons nobody wanted to hear.
You can’t help but wonder what he would think of this: 2500 years later, those sermons nobody wanted to hear are still being read all over the world. And people are preaching new sermons based on his originals. Why? Because we’re still living into that promise: a day when even the most vulnerable among us will be cared for, when none of us are in danger of pandemics, when those of us grieving most deeply will be consoled, when all of us will start partying with abandon as we have never partied before, with nobody fretting about the bottom line.
Maybe that sounds foolish. Why live into the promise of a day that never seems to arrive? Because foretastes of that day do keep arriving. Jeremiah’s people did return. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were descendants of Jeremiah’s people. And they got to return from their own exile. Jesus preached and acted out his own version of Jeremiah’s promised day. And yes, it got him executed. But even that didn’t keep him from showing up again and sharing the very life of God with his followers—all the way down to us.
Did that day of endless, carefree partying arrive, ever? No. But these foretastes did arrive. They sustained Jeremiah; they sustained his descendants; they sustained the Holy Family; they sustained Jesus; and they sustained his followers all the way down to us.
All the way down to us. It’s still Christmas. It’s not the festive Christmas we wanted. There’s so much uncertainty about what 2021 will bring. But there’s no more uncertainty than Jeremiah faced, no more than the Holy Family faced, no more than Jesus’ first followers faced. And the meal we are about to share is yet another foretaste of the homecoming Jeremiah and Jesus preached.
Will this keep us from agonizing? No. Will this sustain us? Count on it. Amen.