Reflection on the Prophet Jeremiah.
December 18, Simbang-Gabi
By Fr. Randy Flores, SVD
What has Jeremiah to do with Christmas? Branded as a prophet of doom, Jeremiah is even accused today of condemning the use of Christmas trees (quoting Jer 10:1-5). As what his name stands for, “The Lord has appointed him,” Jeremiah received the divine appointment to be a prophet even before he was born. The pre-natal mission, however, is something of which you and I would not be envious. God sent him to “uproot and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish” kingdoms and only afterwards “to build and to plant”. He had to denounce his fellow prophets, the priests, the princes, the kings as well as animals, trees and crops and to announce the destruction of their most sacred city, Jerusalem and of its most sacred place of worship, the Temple—the end of the kingdom of David. His prophetic ministry was one of the longest, 40 years but all spent in anguish during the most tumultuous period of Judah’s history. Assyrian power was collapsing and the Babylonians had taken the helm of the empire. The kingdom of Judah itself was beset with economic and political problems. In such a short period of time, the kingdom had six different rulers. Jeremiah himself was snubbed, rejected, jailed, tortured, persecuted and sentenced to die. The mission must have weighed a heavy toll on his spirit that, in extremely strong words, Jeremiah complained to God. He accused God of deceiving him, cursed the day of his birth and contemplated on ending his own life.
Check any image of Jeremiah available online and look at how artists have portrayed our prophet. Michelangelo, for instance, painted him as seated, unlikely posture of a prophet who is supposed to be a person in action. Jeremiah’s fingers cover his mouth, his head is hanging, his hair disheveled, eyes sunk deep, gaze downcast, shoulders drooping, beard unkempt, and fingers pointing downwards. “Pasan Ko ang Daigdig” (The World Is On My Shoulders) could have been a fitting title for this anguish-filled painting that decorates the Sistine Chapel. Jeremiah is someone you wouldn’t want to be around as guest in a Noche Buena.
There comes a time when your life is one of Jeremiah or even worse. Unlike Jeremiah, however, you’re afraid to complain to God. You’re ashamed to protest or say, “Why are you doing this to me, Lord?” You’re so mean and unjust!” (cf. Jer 20:7). Yet the prophet could be telling you now, “It’s okay not to be okay” (as one title of a book says). Take note that during the prophet’s woes and bitter jeremiads, he had seen a ray of hope: “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up a righteous shoot to David” (from today’s First Reading). The prophecy must have come like a “whispering hope making one’s heart “in any sorrow rejoice!” (from the Christmas song).
When the evangelist Matthew wrote his own version of the Christmas story, he must have in mind also the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy (today’s Gospel Reading). For Matthew, the central figure in his story is Saint Joseph whom he describes as a “righteous man” and a “son of David.” Although, Matthew’s fulfillment quotation is from the prophet Isaiah (a Virgin bearing a Son and whose name will be “Emmanuel”), a subplot is Jeremiah’s oracle of the coming of a “righteous shoot of David.” Matthew likewise tells us that Joseph shall name his child “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” The evangelist must be making a “throwback” to another of Jeremiah’s oracles of hope, a sequel of the first one. In that prophecy, God shall someday make a “new covenant” with his people, one that is to be written in the heart and that He will forgive their iniquity and will no longer remember their sin (cf. Jer 33:33-34).
Christmastime is not of course the period to dwell on your sins and woes. It is a hope-time; a time to strengthen your hope. “Tis the season of hope,” as many say. If the basis of ancient Israel’s hope was the prophetic word, yours is the Word-Made-Flesh. You hope is anchored in a person called Jesus who became like you and who enjoyed the wonderful gift to be a human being just like you. Maybe you can pray like this on Christmas day: “Lord, thank you for becoming human just like me, just like my friend, just like the person seated beside me, just like my enemy.”