|"Simeon's Song of Praise" Aert de Gelder (ca. 1710)|
“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…” (Luke 2:29-31)
I really love the gospel appointed for Christmas 1, Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 2:22-40). Granted, I don’t often give myself the opportunity to preach on it. In years past I’ve kind of figured that good American Lutherans, wiped out by the bacchanal of the Yule, always want to sleep in on the Sunday after Christmas and nurse their sugar-cookie hangovers. Church attendance goes into the dumper on this Sunday. Subsequently, I’ve often taken this Sunday off and not taken the time to prepare a message on the beautiful passage the lectionary gives us. That’s too bad, because the imagery in this lesson is really exquisitely lovely. At least I think so.
Liturgical purists will recognize verses 29-32 as the Nunc Dimittis, a canticle that’s part of evening worship settings such as Compline or Evensong. For a Lutheran like myself it’s more familiar as the canticle sung right after the reception of the Holy Eucharist. In our gospel, Simeon, a pious and devout Jew who believed he wouldn’t die until he’d seen the Messiah, cradles the baby Jesus in his arms and tells God he’s now ready to hang it up. It’s actually a joyful and thankful admission, so it’s appropriate that we sing it right after we’ve encountered Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. You can find musical arrangements of this prayer in Evangelical Lutheran Worship’s first two settings of the mass (ELW pg. 113 and pg. 134 in case you want to look it up). Personally, I wish we’d include it in all settings.
I mean, how cool is this image? Here’s an old dude at the end of his life hugging a little baby boy at the very beginning of his. The old geezer is thanking God that his tradition is going to live on after him. He’s taking joy in the life and vitality he no longer has but knows this child will enjoy. As a cleric who has officiated hundreds of funerals, I can’t even count the number of times family members of the deceased have expressed gratitude that their elderly relative lived long enough to see a grandchild or great-grandchild born. It’s an affirmation of life itself.
This gospel lesson also celebrates the wisdom of the elderly. I’ve had Simeons and Annas in my congregation, and there’s something to be said for vintage Christians who have lived lives of prayer, learned mercy and forgiveness, and have figured out that you don’t need to take all the crap so seriously. Simeon and Anna know who Jesus is, and because they know, they are full of optimism for that which is to come.
(By the way, an interesting little—but certainly not unimportant—detail in this story is found at verse 24. Mary and Joseph, expected to either give their firstborn son to God per the statues in Exodus 13 or redeem him at a price, come to the Temple to do the latter. I find it significant that the sacrificial price for the Redeemer of the World is only two lousy pigeons. Since there was no Republican tax plan in New Testament times, I’m assuming that the low price was offered to those of limited means, and that rich folks were expected to make grander sacrifices—like a cow or a sheep—as their means permitted. By including this detail, Luke reminds us that our Savior came from the peasant class. Jesus loves the poor because he was poor himself!)
This gospel lesson is both celebration and foreboding at the birth of this child. Any parent gets this. Having been in my current parish for almost two full decades, I’ve had the privilege and delight of watching a whole bunch of whacky kids grow into adulthood. At Christmastime, they all come back to go to church with their parents and grandparents. The first baby I baptized from this congregation now speaks with a bass voice and towers a good head taller than his pastor. I love seeing them, love hearing about what they’re up to, and love the fact that they still show up for worship—if only once or twice a year.
BUT: Like every parent, my joy is also coupled with worry. When two lads I’ve known since they were rug rats put on the uniform of the United States military, I’m filled with both pride and dread. When the adorable little girls set off for college, I start thinking about the unsavory tales I’ve heard about campus parties and sexual assault. Over the years I’ve been so very well-pleased by the accomplishments of my “church kids,” but I’ve been saddened by their misadventures, too.
Simeon tells Mary that Jesus will be destined for the “falling and rising of many in Israel” (verse 34), but a sword will also pierce Mary’s heart. With the child’s greatness will come opposition and sorrow. It cannot be otherwise.
As we embrace the baby Jesus, we’ll find in his gentleness and humility our own sense of identity and, for want of a better word, pride. But we will also find opposition, and we will hurt along with him.
I dearly hope that this sense of hurt does not stem from cultural indignation. Personally, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass if we say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” here in America. I don’t care if we don’t have “In God We Trust” on our currency or the Ten Commandments on our courthouse walls. I care when the ones Christ came to save are violated. When God’s children become refugees, or heroin addicts, or are incarcerated, or are dying from war-related famine—that’s when the sword should pierce the heart of the Christian. And, I guarantee you, any attempt to address these situations will certainly bring opposition from someone.
At such moments of opposition it might be a good idea to remember dear old Simeon. He believed the promises of God, and we will, too. So we hold onto the baby Jesus, give thanks, and move forward into a new year.