For Reflection: this week Benjamin reflects on facing the reality of this last pandemic year.
Last week the Church of England Twitter account sent out a message with an accompanying video to mark a year of producing a national online service for the Church of England. Reflecting on this anniversary the message read:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
It's been a year since we started worshipping online together! With more than 55 services, 382 contributors and 258 pieces of music, we've loved every minute.
This is reluctant milestone to be marked. The speed at which worship was able to move from in-person to at-home both nationally and at a local level in response to the pandemic is certainly something to be impressed by, the tone of the message hit the wrong note for many.
As one comment I saw said: “this is weirdly self-congratulatory”. The message and the idea that we’ve loved every minute of this experience created by panic and fear and grief of this last year just seemed to get the mood wrong as we mark the first anniversary of this year, we would all dearly love to put behind us.
Reflecting not only on this message, but also on the upbeat tone it drew from, one well-known priest-commentator said in a rather curmudgeonly, but completely understandable way:
Dunno why chirpy religious optimism makes me feel so depressed, but it does. I think I’m going to spend the afternoon reading some Jeremiah.
The Book of Jeremiah is not immediately seen as a place of light and hope. It is one of those books which has generated, through its reputation, its own lexicon. The proper name has become a noun in its own right. To be called a “Jeremiah” is to be described as a person who is pessimistic about the present and foresees a calamitous future. It has even generated a verbal form of the noun, with a “jeremiad” being a compelling tirade in the spirit of its name’s sake.
Written across the turn of the seventh and sixth centuries BC the Book of Jeremiah prophecies and then recounts the final fall and ruin of the Judah and Jerusalem. Through the chapters of the book the eponymous prophet constantly preaches of the judgement on Jerusalem and on the vanity and hubris of its leaders which lead inevitably and justifiably to the defeat and exile at the hands of the Babylonians and the righteous judgement of God.
Jeremiah is not a comfortable read. As our Lenten journey moves into Passiontide, and we begin our slow but inexorably walk towards the foot of the cross, increasingly Jeremiah becomes our guide and companion. For many, as we come again to the second Passiontide of this pandemic year Jeremiah has taken on a profoundly contemporary tone.
Rather than accept a forced optimism that so many find so waring, Jeremiah compels us to face up to cost and failure of this past year. Of a crisis which could have been cauterised at source were it not for the pride and hubris of international relations. Of missed opportunities to put the costs of human life above economic prosperity. Of hurried decisions and u-turns that confused and angered those forced to live within them. Of a death count in this country akin to half-the population of Newcastle.
The deep and unfathomable costs of this past year is a reality that Jeremiah helps us articulate:
For thus says the Lord:
Your hurt is incurable,
your wound is grievous.
There is no one to uphold your cause,
no medicine for your wound,
no healing for you.
And for many this is where we must remain. Recognising our sinfulness, our shared culpabilities in the failures that have brought us to this point. Jeremiah carries with him a contemporary voice because he does not give us any where to hide. He strips away all the excuses we might make of ourselves and leaves us with only one place to go - to repent and ask for God forgiveness.
However, for all his reputation as a prophet of doom, Jeremiah’s challenge for us to face up to the truth of our reality does not lead us to a place of darkness as we might imagine. Within his preaching of disaster and judgement a new reality emerges. The reality of hope.
The hope that Jeremiah guides us towards is not some sort of conjuring trick though. In Jeremiah the hope we find is not like the final few scenes of a disaster movie where, after everything going wrong, miraculously hope is found like a rabbit out of a hat.
Despite the candour and challenge of Jeremiah, the hope he speaks of is more believable more grounded that that because at the heart of Jeremiah’s prophesy is a belief above all things in the faithfulness of God. As we hear in our reading:
this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
At the heart of the stark reality of Jeremiah’s prophesy is a gleaming vision of hope. This is, though, not a hope that seeks to sidestep disaster. It is a hope which we find only as a future beyond the disaster that Jeremiah challenges us to see.
For this reason there is a modesty and a reality in the hope that Jeremiah speaks to us of. Earlier in the chapter we have just heard a passage of, Jeremiah does not promise the hope of impossible dreams and unlikely odds. That would be to speak with the hubris and vanity of the leaders who drove Judah to this place of doom. No, Jeremiah speaks of a simple hope we can all grasp and hold onto. Of a displaced people returning to their homes. Of workers finding life and fruitfulness in the soil of the land. Of a people able to resume worship as they would hope and desire.
As come to this anniversary of this year none of us wanted or want again Jeremiah challenges us to put down the false-optimism and demands that we look squarely at the cost and destruction in all its ways of this past year. But as Jeremiah also shows us, it is only if we look squarely at this painful reality that we are able to see the simple hope that we all seek to grasp onto.
Of a world on the far side of this pandemic where we might hold and touch those we love again. Of a place where we might find the flourishing and fruitfulness of God’s creation beyond the confines of our postcode district. And of a place where we might freely and without restriction lift our voices in prayer and praise when gather in worship and give thanks for the faithfulness of the God Jeremiah draws us to.