When a child is born, we wonder and dream about what they could become, but only God knows. When Jesus was born, God gave Simeon and Anna unique vision to know that this was the promised Messiah. They offer blessings over the child and thanksgiving to God; Mary and Joseph offer two turtledoves, the only offering for their first born outlined by the law that they can afford. Out of the exceedingly ordinary comes the miraculous.
LUKE 2: 22-40
22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
This has been a holiday season of constant motion for me. I visited my parents before Christmas and had a household full of family as soon as I returned. I wouldn’t trade it but I am ready to slow down. It centers me to return to my disciplines and reviewing the week’s scripture has been neglected. So here are some thoughts for the Sunday after Christmas. I will make a couple of comments on the text that struck me and then wander into some of the pastoral implications that the text generated for me.
As Luke unfolds the story of Jesus, he repeatedly pairs the extraordinary and the ordinary. Along side of prophecies, the miracle of Jesus’ conception, and the angels heralding his birth, Luke tells us of a poor couple journeying to Bethlehem, birth in a stable and shepherds as the first celebrants. In retrospect, we can see God in the babe but none of his holiness was particularly obvious at the time.
Jesus’ parents do the ordinary things a faithful family would do. They have him circumcised, name him and bring him to the temple to present him to the Lord. Their offering of two turtledoves marked them as poor people. (The law made allowances for wealth—the wealthy could afford lambs, the poor could substitute “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons”). This small detail once again reminds us that the Lord of all was raised among the poor. He was not someone who would be noticed in the Temple. He was one of many babies presented in the temple.
This snippet of Jesus’ young life once again contrasts his ordinariness with the life yet to come. It sets the stage for Jesus’ ministry and his call “ to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.” His ministry was not based upon an ideal of justice, it emerged from real life.
But in the midst of this, both Simeon and Anna recognize the babe as the Messiah. Luke includes both men and women when he reports divine revelations. There is no gender-based superiority when it comes to hearing and seeing the Lord. How easily has the institutional church lost sight of such basic inclusion? Both have something to say and both need to be heard.
Simeon makes two important statements. First the baby will be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” and second, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” This baby would simultaneously offer salvation and turmoil to the people of Israel. When he proclaims that the Messiah came to the Gentiles as well as for the glory of Israel, he was upsetting an ancient understanding of the specialness of Israel. This would not be well received.
Anyone who thinks they are uniquely favored over other nations or people are challenged by the inclusiveness of God’s love. Up until this time, the Jewish identity depended upon being different. Gentiles were, by definition unclean. Suddenly, they too were announced as God’s chosen. This particular distinction may be an artifact of history but if we examine our ‘inner thoughts’, most of us have some claim to distinction we would be loathe to give up. If you visualize the last fifty people you have seen (personally or in the media), I doubt you saw them all as your brother and sister in Christ. We might say as much, but some of those people were dirty, some wanted to harm us, some were prejudiced, some were Democrats and some were Republicans. To truly believe that God does not recognize those distinctions is disturbing. As Simeon says “and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Anna brings another dimension. Married only seven years before she was widowed, Anna had spent the vast majority of her eighty-four years in mourning. “She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” Whether her grief was personal or an expression of her mourning for Israel, from the moment she saw the baby Jesus, she “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Her life was transformed. There was hope where before there had only been darkness.
She reminds me of a woman I met while I was working with Hospice. She was old, frail and in pain. She asked me to pray that she die sooner than later. But her time did not match God’s time. Quite unexpectedly she improved a slight bit and she was discharged from the hospital. When I saw her again two weeks later, she wanted to live whatever time was allotted her. Her age, frailty and pain had not really changed but now she could be with her grandchildren. It is important to know that our end is not the end.
“When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.” His work and his parent’s work had just begun.
Be careful what you ask for. It will not be as you expect. Mary was promised that her child was the chosen one, but no one could have prepared her for his crucifixion. Depending upon God requires that we give up our certainties about how the world ought to be. Love has to be lived.
Love takes directions and requires an effort that we cannot anticipate. You can be told that the birth of a child will change your life. But until you are raising that child, you can’t quite know what those words mean. You can be told that God loves you, but until you tolerate the exposure of your many flaws, can you begin to accept it. You can be told that everyone must die but until your body starts to fail you, dying only happens to other people.
Few things will turn out as we expected. Trust the Lord and do the work of love. It is the best New Year’s Resolution you can make. Let it be so.