by Father Mike Stubbs
In the winter of 1838, about 15,000 Cherokee were forced to leave their homes in the southeastern United States, in order to relocate to reservations in the Indian Territory, in present-day Oklahoma.
To make the journey, they traveled over 1,000 miles, mainly on foot, poorly clothed, often without shoes or moccasins. They suffered tremendously from harsh weather, disease and malnourishment. About 4,000 died. That is why their journey is called the Trail of Tears.
Sunday’s reading, Jer 31:7-9, tells us: “They departed in tears.” Thousands of years before the Cherokee made their death march, the Israelites had similarly been forced into exile. The conquering Assyrians had taken them to the land of the north, to Babylonia. But now, the prophet anticipates their triumphant return home: “I will bring them back from the land of the north.”
Unlike the difficult conditions in which they left Israel, the returning exiles will not endure hardships along the way. Even though they may walk through desert lands, God will take care of them. God will provide abundant water for them to drink and make an easy path for them to travel on: “I will lead them to brooks of water, on a level road, so that none shall stumble.”
God will ensure extremely favorable conditions for travelling. Even those with physical handicaps, even pregnant women, will be able to manage the trip: “I will gather them from the ends of the world, with the blind and the lame in their midst, the mothers and those with child.”
This explains why the returning exiles can be so happy. Not only are they going home, but they are travelling first class. That is why the prophet exhorts: “Shout for joy for Jacob, exult at the head of the nations; proclaim your praise and say: The LORD has delivered his people, the remnant of Israel.”
Jeremiah’s message of hope can encourage any who have been forced to leave their homes. Ordinarily, that happens because of war. Refugees flee in order to seek shelter from the fighting. Most recently, thousands of Syrians have been moving to nearby Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and even Iraq, to escape the bloodshed of the civil war raging in their country. Once again, the words of the prophet Jeremiah have come true: “They departed in tears.”
In Sunday’s reading, God assures the people: “For I am a father to Israel, Ephraim is my first-born.” And through Jesus Christ, we know that God claims all of us as sons and daughters. God is our Father. With that in mind, we can once again take comfort in Jeremiah’s message of hope, that God will enable all those forced to leave home to return. Just as God brought the exiles back to the promised land centuries ago, so also God will bring the refugees of our world back to their homes.
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