One of the beautiful things about worship that follows the pattern of the Church Year is that it teaches us about waiting for things. There is an old adage that the only difference between a terrorist and a liturgist is that you can negotiate with a terrorist. The malls may think the Christmas season starts in October. The radio stations may think it starts in November. We stodgy, frumpy, killjoy liturgical types, however, know that it doesn’t begin until December 25 and will last 12 days until January 6.
Consequently, when everyone outside those doors was singing Christmas carols, we were singing songs about what we have to look forward to in the miracle of Christmas. We switched to blue paraments and stoles, to remind us that things were different, to add to the sense of excitement and change. We also brought in special candles.
Those candles are significant, particularly in regard to our text for today. The prophets and biblical writers tell us that, without the presence of God, we stumble in darkness. The coming of Jesus is the fire that lit up the world – allowing us to see our sins and our potential. We light candles to remind ourselves that we honor the coming of that light, and that it is likewise our responsibility to carry it into the world.
As preachers, our job was not unlike that of John the Baptizer – we had to prepare the way. Our job was to serve as reminders that, no matter how content we would like to be, there is something to look forward to. If we did our job well, then it should be with some sense of relief and satisfaction that we gather to reflect on the fact that, finally, we gather to celebrate – not the hope that will come – but the hope that has come in the person of Jesus.
Finally, we are here. The Lord is with us. The next question is, now what? What do we do now that the long-awaited Jesus is among us?
That’s exactly what our gospel text for the day ponders. In it, we look at how Mary & Joseph, a pious man named Simeon, and a prophet named Ann all responded to the arrival of the infant Jesus. The text begins with the young child’s parents.
At the time, there were several traditions that followed the birth of a child. From what we can tell of the gospel accounts, Mary and Joseph acted promptly to follow all of them. Interestingly, none of them are rituals that we follow today, and the reason that we don’t follow them is because of the arrival of Jesus. Why then was it so important for the parents of the Son of God to follow them?
That question becomes even more dicey when we consider that the underlying principle of one of those rituals is something that I doubt any in our congregation would support. It centers around Mary, who would have been considered “unclean” for forty days following the birth of Jesus. Had he been a girl, it would have been eighty days [Lev 12:1-5].
We no longer believe that natural biological processes make a woman “untouchable.” Nor do we believe that female children are somehow inferior to male ones. The idea that a woman was required, at the end of her forty or eighty days, was required to present a lamb and pigeon at the temple seems quaint and superstitious. At its worst it seems bigoted and ignorant.
I am hesitant, however, to read twenty-first century logic into first century religious practices. What matters most about Mary and Joseph’s trip to the temple is not what they did while they were there, but why they went. Having experienced the particular and miraculous action of God; Mary and Joseph act. They act according to the obligations of their faith community.
In honoring God, they honor that covenant. They also introduce it to the infant Jesus, and likewise introduce Jesus into the community that will nurture is faith as he matures. Alan Culpepper, in writing on this text, [NIB] points out that this part of the text is perhaps the most foreign to our modern, fast paced world. Many of us perhaps consider ourselves to busy for religious traditions. Others of us may say we are too enlightened. Some of us may just think ritual and tradition are silly.
Mary and Joseph clearly did not. Given the gift of bearing and raising the child of God, they did not use the challenges they faced or the privilege they enjoyed as excuses to avoid the obligations that came from being part of the chosen people of God.
Yet somehow, even though our own religious traditions and obligations don’t involve anything as arduous as a trek via pack animal across a dusty road to a distant city where some people might want to kill our son, we think our excuses are better. Whether the issue is church attendance, tithing, or even simply reverence during worship, we think we had better reasons to not honor our own (admittedly sometimes apparently silly) traditions than Mary and Joseph did to honor theirs.
The specifics of how they honored those obligations aren’t completely clear from Luke – who was likely a Gentile – wasn’t completely familiar with the obligations of new parents under the Law. He sort of jumbles them all together.
In Mary and Joseph’s case, there were three duties that they had to complete: the aforementioned purification of Mary, the circumcision of Jesus, and the dedication of Jesus. For reasons unbeknownst to me, the compilers of the lectionary decided to, shall we say, “trim” the account of the circumcision from today’s text. Nevertheless, if we look back a few verses we see that Jesus was indeed circumcised on the eighth day following his birth.
We’ve already covered the purification of Mary, although there is one side note that we might add. The Law made a provision [Lev 12:6-8] that, if the parents of a newborn were sufficiently poor, they could substitute a second turtledove or pigeon for the required lamb. We are told that the parents of Jesus did just that, perhaps a subtle reminder that the hope of all humanity whom we’ve been awaiting came as a child to a very poor, working-class family
As a firstborn son, Jesus was also expected to be consecrated to God. This was in memory of God sparing the firstborn sons of Israel at the beginning of their Exodus from Egypt [Ex 13:2-16]. The firstborn was then redeemed from their obligations by a tithe of five shekels.
Where things get muddled, however, is that Luke makes no mention of the redemption, and seems to believe that firstborn sons had to be presented at the Temple (which they did not). Luke also seems to think that all of Jesus’ family, not Jesus mother, had to be purified after his birth. It’s not a bad note as inclusiveness goes, but it is not consistent with what we find in the Torah.
Again though, as we seek to follow the example of Mary and Joseph in honoring the arrival of Jesus, the specifics of what they did are not important. We are under a different covenant and in a different community. What is important is to note that they acted, and they acted in a way that honored God and the traditions of their faith. What do we do when the long-awaited Jesus is among us? We gather, and we worship.
You may all pat yourselves on the back, because that is exactly what everyone who came here today is doing. The Christmas Eve service was just the first step. Those of us who want to follow in the footsteps of the parents of Jesus are expected to be hear today as well. Far be it from me to use guilt to get people to come to church – but if it’s already in the text, who am I to argue?
Also in the text are two people whom we see nowhere else in Scripture: Simeon and Anna. The way in which their stories are tied to that of Jesus is a reminder that there is an undercurrent of deep longing, even desperation that runs through the seasons of Advent and Christmas. There are people who had been waiting a long time for the coming of the promised Savior of humanity.
We are not given Simeon’s age, but the text would imply that he is a wise old patriarch. A pious man, we are told that the Holy Spirit rested in Simeon, and that he had been told by it that he would not die until he saw the Messiah with his own eyes. And so, when Mary and Joseph bring their baby to the Temple, Simeon is overcome with joy.
He takes the infant into his arms and offers a poem rich in biblical imagery. That poem is often referred to the Nunc Dimmitis – which are its first two words when translated into Latin. It is a small capsule of the gospel.
The Nunc Dimmitis begins with a recognition that God has been faithful to what Simeon has been promised. Then, Simeon makes a rather astonishing move. He is holding in his arms a six-week-old infant. I have some experience with six-week-old infants, and generally their activities are limited to sleeping, eating, crying, crying loudly, crying very loudly, and various messy bodily functions. Simeon sees more than an unbeliever would see – he sees the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation. Celebrating the arrival of the Christ-child means seeing with the eyes of faith and believing in what God can do with the everyday.
Even more amazing than a baby that can save God’s chosen people is a baby that can save the world. Simeon recognizes, though, that God will do more than redeem Israel with life of Jesus. He proclaims the child “a light of revelation to the Gentiles.” This too is part of our celebration of Christmas. To honor the coming of Jesus, we remind ourselves that he didn’t just come for us.
This might have been hard for Simeon to admit. Unbelievers who worshipped their emperor as a god held a tyrannical hold on his nation and his people. If I were in that situation, the last thing I would want to do is share with them. We have no Roman oppressors to fear or despise, but Simeon’s poem reminds us that regardless of whom we consider worthy of contempt – the Savior whom we celebrate came for them as well.
Simeon closes with a blessing and a cryptic statement that Jesus will turn the world on its ear, and even “pierce the soul of Mary.” After much reading, I have no clear answer to give you on what that phrase means – although it would be consistent with the whole of Luke’s gospel to say simply that following Jesus means surprise and peril.
It also means celebration and joy, as the arrival of the prophet Anna reminds us. At the very least in her eighties, Anna has been waiting for this a long time. Her life centered around worship and prayer at the Temple. Immediately upon seeing Jesus she began to celebrate and to proclaim the good news of the arrival of the Messiah to all who were eager for his coming. It is ironic that in our own time there are still some resistant to women who preach the gospel, but here Luke tells us that the first person to proclaim the gospel to others was in fact a woman.
It is perhaps difficult for us to fully comprehend her joy. The Roman Empire was a great place to be a Roman citizen, but not the best of places to be a Jew. Anna and those like her lived in an oppressive state, and desperately longed to be freed. What she did not realize is that the real freedom that Jesus would offer would not be from tyrannical rulers. Instead, Jesus would free us from the ruthless grip of our sins.
We are on the other side of that liberation, in a comfortable church where the presence, mercy, and love of God are reinforced by our faithful community in a hundred different ways. Anna’s voice calls to us from our own past, reminding us of the heavy darkness that settles in where the light of Christ is absent. In honoring the coming of Jesus, we remember Egypt, we remember the places in our own lives where we felt separate from God; and we remember and pray for those who are still there.
We have made it. Somewhere amidst the Christmas parties and the family gatherings and the pile of cardboard boxes by the curb, Jesus came. Advent, though, does not come at the end of the Christian Year. It is the beginning. Now that we have started down this road, we have obligations like those of Simeon and Anna, Mary and Joseph.
We are obligated to remember. We are obligated to honor God. We are obligated to gather and worship. We are obligated to recognize the darkness and carry the light.