Sunday, January 01, 2012

First Sunday after Christmas

Luke 2
22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”[a]), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”[b]
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss[c] your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four.[d] She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.

I tried to be a pagan for a while, but it didn’t work out.

Well, not precisely pagan, more old Norse, and really just in name only. You see, back in the summer I was reading Bernard Cornhill’s Saxon Stories, a series of books (now six) that tell the story of Uhtred Uhtredson. Uhtred is a Saxon boy, captured by Danes, and grows to live in these two worlds, who also happen to be fighting for the future of Britain.

I tend to get caught up in my reading, and since I do most of it at the cottage, I thought I might slip in a phrase or two and see who notices. Hit my thumb with the hammer and I might exclaim something like: “Odin and all the gods, that hurt.” No real response. Waiting to go into town, I might say: “For the love of Thor, what’s taking you people?” Nothing.

Briefly, I began to believe that no one listens to me. I’m still working on that theory, but mostly I became convinced that by employing the standard formula (god/exclamation) that we’ve been using for a few thousand years, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. That, or no one listens to me.

I started thinking about the old gods, especially Wodin, Thor and Freya, and doing a little side reading to my reading, and realized their echo is never far away. In fact, the end of the week, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, are really Wodin’s Day, Thor’s Day and Freya’s Day, making us all more than a little pagan as the weekend nears.

And it gets worse. While Mary and Joseph were busy enacting the purification ritual at the Temple in Jerusalem, the nearby Romans were busy too. Just steps from the Temple, in the Antonia Fortress, the Romans were toasting the god Janus, the god of two faces.

It seems Janus was prefect for the occasion, the end of one year and the beginning of another, looking forward and looking back. Appropriate to this, Romans would make resolutions for the new year, looking forward and looking back, trying to remedy the mistakes of the old year by pledging to do better in the new. Sound familiar? And Janus, beginning of the year, as in January?

Add to that March for Mars the god of war, and July and August for a couple of Roman Emperors, and I would say we’re pretty much stuck in a pagan past. Thank goodness for Mary and Joseph, enacting a different kind of ritual, and showing us another way.

Anna and Simeon, waiting patiently in the Temple, are recorded in the New Testament but seem to belong to the Old. They are prophets, of the old school variety, waiting for a sigh of God’s promise to return. Simeon speaks first, and gives thanks that he was witness to the advent of this new hope, “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.”

I want to look at this phrase for just a moment as we ponder the more difficult aspects of the season we are in. It is hard to spend so much time on the idea of fulfilled promise, with our liberal use of the word Messiah, and not mention that for Jews, Messiah has not come. The “consolation of Israel” that Simeon seeks was not found in Jesus for the vast majority of Jews, and to simply suggest that we are right while they are wrong is to perpetuate a mistake that has tainted Christianity for two thousand years. It took the Holocaust and a repentant Pope (John XXIII) to help us see that suggesting Jews are mistaken at Christmas or guilty on Good Friday is both unjust and dangerous.

Looking to Simeon, his phrase may hold a way forward, with “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel” mirroring a very modern understanding of these two religions, Judaism and Christianity. Our religion, it turns out, was and is primarily a “revelation to the Gentiles,” the largest audience and the largest body of converts. Judaism quietly carried on, but does get recognition as the “older brother,” the root of three great faiths, and to echo Simeon, “the glory of the people Israel.”

Looking to Anna, she takes prophecy in a different direction, from consolation to the “redemption of Jerusalem.” Again, the more literal understanding would be that all everyone in the Holy City would be redeemed by Christ, and this did not happen. The Jewish population remained Jewish, many remaining in the city intermittently down to today. But shift from the Temple to the Fortress, and we begin to see Anna’s prophecy come true. For indeed it was Romans in the garrison who were partly responsible for carrying this message to the rest of the known world, ensuring that this early redemption of Jerusalem would have far reaching consequences.

So Anna and Simeon are right, but not in the most literal or commonly held way. They witness the beginning of something world-altering, but not in the way they might expect. But the clues are there, hidden in the text.

The first clue is the station of these young parents. They give the offering of people who live in poverty, the gift of birds rather than the traditional lamb. Considering that the vast majority were poor, but still managed to make the customary offering, we know that Mary and Joseph were very poor. Yet God chose to come to this household, not the governor’s palace, not the rich merchant’s house, and not the Imperial palace in Rome. God came to be with all people, and began among the most humble.

The second sign to something unexpected is happening can be found in Simeon’s summary words:

Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

The advent of Messiah was sure to generate conflict, to cause the falling and rising of many, and spark a debate that may never end. But the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart is unexpected, and foreshadows the ending we already know. Little did Simeon know that birth and death would be so intertwined, that it is the cross that becomes the mysterious way of redemption, and that the story would end with a lamb: the lamb of God.

As with so many things in life, hope and sadness come together, yet the final word is hope. The prophets of old see comfort for those who suffer, and the great reversals that bring glory to the most humble and humility to the powerful. Words spoken in the Temple have the greatest impact just a few paces away in the fortress, where the might of Rome will soon meet the lamb of God, and everything will change, Amen.


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