Two friends have been particularly on my mind, and in my prayers, in recent days. One is living on another continent, far from family and friends here on the East Coast, coping with illness, and longing for job opportunities that will bring her family back home. Another left a beloved home and community when her husband left his job under difficult circumstances. They are starting over in a new place, but coping with the alienation of moving to a new place while grieving the traumatic loss of the old. Both friends are dealing daily with grief, anxiety, and anger at situations beyond their control. Both are, in a sense, living an “exile” experience—far from the homes they know best and long for, missing actual places as well as the feeling of being part of a community where they are known and loved.
Listening to the lectionary readings on Sunday morning, I was struck by how many scriptures spoke to the experience of being in exile, of being in a hard place away from home. In the reading from Jeremiah 31, God promises to bring his scattered people back together: “See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth…together, a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back.” Psalm 84 promises that, “Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs.” And in the Gospel from Matthew 2, the holy family leaves home for Egypt to protect young Jesus from Herod’s plan to kill all firstborn male children. They eventually return, but feeling unsafe in Judea, they end up again in a new place—Nazareth.
We don’t get details about how the family felt about this decision to move to Nazareth. I imagine it was better than being in Egypt, but still a little new and scary. They would have had to become part of a new community. Especially with their precocious son, that might not have been so easy.
Thinking of my friends as I heard these scriptures, I also heard this assurance: God is with those who are in exile. God is with those who are far from home, either literally or figuratively. God is with those who feel alone, longing for family and old friends far away. God is with those whose future looks uncertain and scary because they can’t see how they will get to a place of abundance, community, and hope. And God will always lead his people back, if not to the old home, then to a new one where God’s purposes for his people will be fulfilled. God promised to bring his scattered people back home, God promised to lead those who knew only a desolate valley into a place of springs, and God brought Jesus to Nazareth to grow into adulthood and into his ministry and purpose.
The story of exile and return is one of the fundamental stories of the Bible. I don't much like when people I care about are deep in the "exile" part and waiting for the return. But I have to believe that God will bring my friends—and all of us who have times of exile, times of feeling disconnected, alone, and uncertain of the future—to that promised place of abundance, community, and hope.
Ellen Painter Dollar is a professional writer and member of St. James’s Episcopal Church. She blogs for St. James’s every Monday, offering reflections on current events, family life, and parish life.