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Well, another Christmas has come and gone. We have come faithfully to Christmas Eve Candlelight Services, singing joyfully hymns and carols full of words about the Son of God coming to bring hope, and joy, and peace. Jesus has been born!
The last remnants of wrapping paper have been cleared away and we are already turning to what comes next. Perhaps you are thinking about plans for the new year. Or maybe you are considering what resolutions you want to try this year. Certainly the Christmas spirit is a fading memory as we turn to focusing on new beginnings in our new year. This is considered the low time in the church calendar. This Sunday in particular traditionally has the lowest attendance of any Sunday throughout the church year at most churches.
Here, on the back side of Christmas Day, after all the parties and the presents and the family dinners, we begin to go back home and go about their regular business. Just as Mary and Joseph had to leave the stable at Bethlehem and go to the temple to tend to the requirements of the law and then hit the road for Nazareth because, after all, Joseph has a business to run and they have a son to raise. We too find ourselves staring at bills and empty boxes and a world filled with the same old problems of race and politics and poverty and violence as before Christ came and we have to wonder – did Christmas actually change anything? Does the birth of Christ change how we live our lives?
Well, it certainly does for Simeon. Simeon had been waiting for the Messiah for years, wandering the streets looking for him. Maybe that’s why Simeon could recognize Jesus when he saw him. Joyfully he cries out to God, celebrating that God will let him die in peace having seen the messiah with his own eyes. Not exactly the most cheery message for some, but Simeon had been waiting and waiting. And now he had finally seen the light! He was changed by that very glimpse of the baby Lord. And he cried out in praise.
And Anna. She had lived in the temple for years, having no other place to go as a widow in that world. When she saw Jesus she too began to praise God. And more than that, she began to tell everyone she saw that this child will be the redemption of Jerusalem. She went from being a widow, surviving only on the mercy of the temple to a prophet, speaking joyfully to all about how this child will redeem everyone.
When was the last time you were so excited about something you heard, or saw, or learned that you had to tell everyone you saw about it? When was the last time you were so excited about what God was doing in the world that you had to share? Children keep that excitement, wanting to share everything good that happens to them with everyone they meet. Their joy bubbles over, and they share with everyone they encounter. The same is true of Anna and Simeon.
Simeon and Anna have waited decades for the anointed one, fasting and praying for insight to recognize God’s beloved. When the baby Jesus enters the temple, carried by his parents, they see what everyone else misses, God’s vision incarnate in a little baby. No doubt many others see the parents and their child, but to them he was just another baby coming to be blessed by the temple priests. In contrast, Simeon and Anna see more.
Both of these elders recognize in Jesus the dawning of a new age, the coming of a new blessing for God’s people; not only for Israel, but also for everyone. Echoing the prophet Isaiah, Simeon sees in Jesus the promised salvation “which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Anna sees in the child as “the redemption of Jerusalem.” Both of these elders praise God and spread the word. Instead of looking at the baby and the changes he is bringing into the world with both jealous envy and cynical pity; both Simeon and Anna see in Jesus a new thing God is doing and they praise God for it and spread the word.
I wonder about Mary here. I wonder about her reaction. After all, she’s finally had this miracle child and is coming to offer him to the temple and cleanse herself. And this strange man comes up and starts calling to God, saying her son will not only save Israel, but offer revelation to the gentiles. Something to wonder at indeed! The man blesses Mary with her child’s destiny, but he doesn’t stop there.
“And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” From there the text moves on to Anna and her celebration. No word about how Mary reacted from these hard words. I don’t think she doubted them though. She knows who her son is and she has been told who he will be. Everyone is celebrating his life and I think she celebrates too, but I think she is also afraid. Afraid for her baby boy. Everyone hopes for the Messiah. But I doubt many parents would hope for such a hard destiny for their child.
I think one of the reasons we can go through the normal season of Christmas cheer without anything changing is that we sometimes skip the hard parts. Yes, Jesus was born in human flesh and dwelt among us. That is amazing and joyful and something to be praised. But even at the very beginning we see the shadow of the cross. We see the hard things that are to come in his life with the gifts from the wise men, with the proclamations of Simeon and Anna. Mary knows that this child will cause her pain.
On this first Sunday after Christmas, our call is to embrace the Christ Child with the clear-eyed enthusiasm modeled for us by Simeon and Anna. They are both joyful and realistic. They are joyful that God has acted. And in their joy they share what they have learned, what they saw with others. And yet, they are realistic about what God’s action means, about the difficulties of what is to come. What begins in the birth of the Christ Child will take an eternity to accomplish.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, the arc of history is long and it bends toward justice. All the nations have not yet been redeemed, but they will be. God will have the world. We are called to follow Jesus, to grow and become wise in battling the injustices of our world. Like Anna and Simeon, we will not see where God’s final plan will end up. But we have been given glimpses of where it is going. Throughout our lives, our hearts will be pierced with compassion as we go, yet our souls will be filled with love.
Our passage today is about beginnings and endings. It is about the very beginnings of our Lord. About how from the very beginning he is dedicated to the temple. And from the beginning people proclaimed what miraculous things he would do. It’s the beginning of Mary and Joseph’s life as parents with all the joys and sorrows that entails.
And it is about endings. The ending of Simeon who goes with a smile upon having seen Israel’s salvation. The ending of Anna who turns her final days to proclaiming the Messiah has come. The ending of any hope Mary and Joseph might have had of Jesus having any sort of a safe life. If we skip the endings, we lose the meaning of the beginnings.
Endings are as much a part of life as beginnings. And yet there is joy. There is joy in small moments shared with another. There is great joy in the birth of a child. and there is every day joy in seeing God present in another. Isaiah reminds us to rejoice in the changes that the Lord will make. And Isaiah is telling this from a place of darkness and exile.
Even in the suffering there is something to rejoice about. Yes, Simeon says, This will feel like a sword piercing you. But this child will be a light. And you have him now. May your joy be full enough that it bubbles over, urging you to share what you learn with others.
Perhaps it makes sense that this passage always happens so close to the new year. This is a time of endings and beginnings. We end one year and move to another. We begin to look over our lives. We make fresh starts. We choose our own beginnings.
This time as the year passes by, take a moment to consider what changed or is changing in your life. Christ has been born. How will that change you? Who will you tell?