I’m currently on my winter break before my spring semester of seminary, and during this time I’ve been binge watching a wonderful show called Call the Midwife. In a recent Christmas episode, an elderly nun who no longer practices midwifery, Sister Monica Joan, is at the nun’s chapel alone for Christmas while her sisters are on call. She is faithfully tending to the daily office of prayer while questioning her purpose now that she is too old to do what she has done for decades – deliver babies. To Sister Monica Joan’s surprise, one of the midwives invited a gospel choir of Caribbean expats from her nearby church to join this isolated nun for her lonely Christmas compline with joyous singing of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. In her lonely state, Sister Monica Joan finds connection in Christian praise, in that small chapel and around the world, while “joyful all the nation’s rise, joining the triumph of the skies”. At this moment, Sister Monica Joan is less alone.
One thing that this past year of a global pandemic has taught me is that naming our grief is helpful. It doesn’t end the grief to name it – in fact, in a quite opposite way, it just allows it to start. And this passage we just heard from Jeremiah allows me to name the grief of disconnection.
Through the prophet Jeremiah, God promises to gather his people together at last, from the ends of the earth, in song and dance and merriment. On this 2nd Sunday after Christmas, and first Sunday of 2021, we long desperately to be gathered together in body. But in my romanticizing of gathering with loved ones, I am reminded that Jeremiah’s picture of gathering, one of pure unadulterated joy, is sometimes hard to imagine. That’s because even when we are gathered together in body, it doesn’t always mean we are connecting. Connection in body feels impossible right now – but connection in spirit has always been difficult.
Pride, prejudices, and biases keep us from really understanding one another. Resentments and heartbreak can drive an ice cold wedge between family and strangers alike. Social media literally works to keep us in our separate bubbles of reality, increasingly unable to imagine someone with a different perspective than our own, coming from different life experiences. Anxiety tells us that everyone is connecting with everyone else except us. Depression pulls us into ourselves, unable to reach out to the ones we love most for help. Even before 2020, connection has always been difficult.
In the beloved animated Christmas special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown spends the Christmas season wondering what Christmas is even about. He can’t connect with the consumerism and joyfully busy pace of the season, and he admits, “I think there must be something wrong with me Linus… I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel…I always end up feeling depressed.” He tries to reach out for help, but it costs him a whole 5 cents and all Charlie Brown gets is a list of all the possible fears he could be experiencing. By the way, I am a huge proponent of therapy, but I would think twice if your therapist sings about the wonderful sound of money, or if she appears to be under 10 years old. But in spite of Lucy’s efforts, in the end the only answer to Charlie Brown’s disconnection to his own feelings and to others, is the word of God spoken through his wise friend Linus.
Upon hearing the Christmas story of the Christ child, Charlie Brown’s focus shifts away from self-analysis and disconnection. In Charlie Brown’s season of despair, he encounters God’s own loneliness in the form of an isolated baby. That lonely baby connects with Charlie Brown more than anything else could. And finally, Charlie Brown finds himself surrounded by friends singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, that same hymn sung by Sister Monica Joan on another lonely Christmas night. It is the word of God that draws these two lonely characters out of themselves and allows connection at last.
And this is exactly what God promises to us, through Jeremiah – to gather us together from the farthest parts of the earth. And not just to gather us, but to gather us in radiance over the goodness of the Lord. This is a perfect kind of gathering.
Sometimes we find ourselves on the farthest ends of the earth from our very own neighbors, avoiding connecting with anyone we don’t understand. Sometimes we feel disconnected from our own inner emotional selves, like Charlie Brown, unsure how to feel better. Sometimes we find ourselves on the farthest ends of the earth emotionally from our own family, struggling to reconcile drastically different personality types, year after year. And for so many, 2020 has been the year of loneliness, and a type of loneliness over which we have very little control. We are scattered to the ends of the earth for so many reasons.
What this tells us is that this connection promised in Jeremiah happens in spite of us, not because of us. We will all be gathered in joyful dancing! I can’t even imagine how this happens, and so I don’t have three points for you to write down about how to connect with one another better. Humility and empathy are the work of God in our hearts. Naming the grief allows us to pray for the grief. And we do so in hope, knowing that God is faithful to His promises.
As we welcome this new year, may we remember that in our world of loneliness, at a time when we cannot be together physically, God’s arms are opened wide, on the cross, to gather his children together as a mother hen gathers her chicks. And as we are gathered into those maternal arms of Christ, we are also gathered closer to one another. Because to be gathered as Christians, whether in body or in spirit, is, very simply, to be gathered in humility, not of our own efforts to connect but through the work of the One Great Connector, the Holy Spirit.
We are the lonely Sister Monica Joan, questioning her purpose, and poor old Charlie Brown, who just can’t force himself to feel the way he wants to feel. When we name our grief of disconnection, we find we are not alone in it. By the cross, that great declaration of forgiveness, God enters our weaknesses, and graces us with the gift of human connection: within our own self, amongst ourselves, and between us and the human child of Jesus. Even now, by this promise of God in Jeremiah, we find ourselves connected, spiritually gathered – as we victoriously sing of God and sinners being reconciled, the divine and human connecting at last. Amen.