Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The 12 Days: Day 6

Luke 2:22-38:

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 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."
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.  It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah.  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, Simeon took him in his arm and praised God, saying,
"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and a glory to your people Israel."
And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.  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 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed -- and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
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, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four.  She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night ant day.  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.

Just when things started to seem normal.

Again Joseph and Mary were doing what good parents were supposed to do, when they were supposed to do it.  A Presbyterian can spot things being done "decently and in order" from a mile away.

All seemed perfectly on track until the old man showed up.  To hear Luke tell it, he just walked up and took the child.  We have no reason to believe that Mary or Joseph knew who he was, so maybe a little bit of panic was in order.  By the time Simeon got through saying what he had to say, maybe the parents wished he had been a mere child-snatcher -- he was old, and they could certainly outrun him...

Oh, it started off well enough, and to Mary at least it should have brought back some memories of angel visits and dramatic prophecies.  Before too long, though, Simeon quit preaching and got to meddling.  Falling?  A "sign to be opposed"?  Might these have been the very first intimations that all would not go well for this child?  Finishing with the cryptic "a sword shall pierce your own soul too" was the last straw, I'd think.  What could that possibly mean?  Is this child going to break my heart?  What will he do?  What will people do to him?

If that weren't enough, then an equally old woman showed up, not to bring darkness to their own hearts, but to point out the child to everyone passing by.  Now Mary and Joseph are not only puzzled and troubled by the old man's words, but they are trying to sort it all out with the whole temple full of people watching, it seemed.

Luke seems very interested in giving us a lot of detail about Simeon and particularly Anna.  We are for a moment treated to the backstory that brought the two to the temple, as well as Anna's personal history and her identity as a prophet (note that Simeon is not so identified).  For Joseph and Mary, though, we have to guess that none of this background was available; just two random strangers suddenly going nuts over their child.

It's not as if there hadn't been enough already, between the angel visitations before Mary was even pregnant, not to mention the invasion of shepherds babbling about angels on the night of the birth.  But what was it like on the other days, when this was just a child who needed to be fed and cleaned and so on?  Did it start to seem, after a while, as if all that other business might have been just a dream, something starting to seem a little less real, a little less present than it seemed at one time?

If so, Simeon and Anna were on the scene to shake those illusions away.

They also served, perhaps, to remind the new parents that they were not the only ones with everything riding on this child, in case that was starting to slip from conscious thought.  To think of these two, blessed with great years, whose whole life had more or less become about waiting for the appearance of this child -- my child -- the salvation of the people, glory of Israel, but my child! -- had to be a jarring, shattering moment.

If there were more of these to come, Luke doesn't record them for us, at least outside of the temple incident at age twelve.  We are left with only two more sentences, in verses 39 and 40, which don't tell us a lot specifically.

Maybe that's because this isn't the important part?

After all, we have done a pretty impressive job of sentimentalizing the nativity story we have beyond all capacity to jolt us or surprise us or move us to live a Christ-like life.  Imagine if we had a childhood full of stories to obsess over.  Can you imagine the carols?  "Away In a Manger" would look like a doctoral treatise in theology by comparison.

Maybe our lack of childhood story is for the best.

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