December 28, 2014
- First Sunday after Christmas
- Mary Holmen
Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 148, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:22-40
When I was in high school at St. Mary’s Academy, we had Sister Laura as our French teacher. Sister Laura had a saying that drove us all crazy. Whenever one of us approached her with a question about some homework we didn’t understand or a test where we had made a mistake, we’d say, “But Sister, I don’t see...” And Sister Laura would reply, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” And the student would sit down in frustration, because Sister Laura was not willing to give easy answers to things we already knew or could figure out for ourselves.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke contain stories that purport to tell us about the infancy and childhood of Jesus. But it’s important for us to realize that the evangelists were not writing history or biography as we understand them. They were writing theology. That’s why the gospels contain different stories, because they were written by different people with access to different parts of the oral tradition about Jesus, written for different communities in different places and living in different circumstances with different needs, issues, concerns, and problems. Each gospel has a unique theological voice, a unique perspective on the one story of Jesus.
Much of the Christmas story, however it is told, has to do with seeing. Mary and Joseph each see an angel. The shepherds see first one, and then many angels. They determine to go to Bethlehem and see this thing which has been made known to them. When they see the child, they recount what had been told them. In Matthew’s telling, the magi see the star that announces the birth of a new ruler. And John comments, “We have seen his glory, as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
The theme of seeing continues in today’s readings. Isaiah promises, “The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory.” Only Luke tells the story of Mary and Joseph bringing the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. It is a story about seeking and seeing. It is a story so significant that the church has set aside a special day – February 2 – to reflect on it, in addition to telling it on this Sunday after Christmas.
This episode has been given a number of names and emphases:
- It is called the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, because the parents come in obedience to the law stated in Leviticus: a woman is considered ritually unclean for seven days before the circumcision of a male child and thirty-three days afterward, for a total of forty days. When the days of her purification are completed, she is to bring to the priest a lamb and a pigeon or turtledove as a sacrifice. As our epistle reading for today reminds us, Jesus is “born of a woman, born under the Law”.
- It is called the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, because Mary and Joseph come in obedience to the law stated in Exodus: the firstborn son belongs to God and is expected to give his life to God in service of some special kind.
- In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, this episode is called the Meeting of Christ with Simeon. There is a gorgeous motet by William Byrd that captures the mystical significance of this meeting. It’s written in Latin, and the English translation says, “The old man carried the young child, but the child was the old man’s king. Him did a virgin bear...and him whom she had borne she did worship.”
- It is a celebration of light – the light of God that has come into the world – the light that lightens the Gentiles – and so February 2 is also called Candlemas, because traditionally all the candles that would be used throughout the year were blessed on this occasion.
This story and the rest of today’s readings are rich with themes of light, of salvation, of promises made and fulfilled, of the work of the Holy Spirit, of time and the right time, but I want to stick with the theme of seeing. In our mind’s eye, we can see Simeon as he enters the temple, moving toward the encounter he has been waiting for so long. He is perhaps a familiar figure, someone we might see around a lot, that faithful, good, devout elder. He teaches us an important spiritual truth. That is, only if we are faithful in spite of many apparently unsuccessful attempts to meet God – only if we keep coming back will we actually arrive at that encounter. Only if we are faithful through many times of prayer that seem to go unheard or unanswered – only if we keep on praying does a moment come when we know God is present and grace is given. Only if we are prepared to go through deserts do we find an oasis. That is what Simeon teaches us as he comes into the temple on yet another day.
Simeon is a seeker and a seer. He watches and waits, looking forward to the consolation of Israel. He has been promised that he will not see death until he has seen the Messiah. There is something very captivating about Luke’s description of this old man. His whole being is open to the future. He looks forward. He looks toward a better future, not just for his country but for all people. He lives in pretty grim times, yet still he hopes. People like Simeon who are able to maintain their capacity for hope, eagerness, faith, and growth are models for others in their communities.
Because of his openness and hope, Simeon is in the right place at the right time, just as Paul says in his letter to the Christians in Galatia – in the fullness of time. Because of Simeon’s perseverance and faithfulness, his seeking is rewarded: “Now, Master, you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation.” As Simeon sings the song which has become a treasure of every generation since, and a fixture of the church’s night prayers for millennia, we notice another thing about him. See the breadth of Simeon’s vision, the vastness of his understanding of God. He is able to see God at work throughout the world, bringing light to all the nations. Very often we see God in small terms: God is “my” God, and religion is about my well being and my problems and my needs. We may see God as the God of our church, or our country, or our way of life. Simeon offers a vision of God worthy of the reality of God.
But with sight may come things we’d rather not see. Simeon can see the present reality well enough to know that with the blessing of motherhood will come a piercing sorrow for Mary. The child will make visible the inner thoughts of many – the hearts and motivations of those who work both for and against the peace and salvation God promises.
Like Simeon, Anna is a person who is able to see. Coming upon this very ordinary scene – a young couple bringing their child to church – she is able to discern the real significance of the child.
Sister Laura said, “There’s none so blind as those who will not see.” She was right. If you have the chance to see and choose not to, pretty soon you lose the ability to see even if you want to. Simeon and Anna are models for us of something we might all strive and pray for – that whether we are very old or very young or somewhere in between, we might be able to see the God of our hope still at work in the world, and that we may have the faithfulness and the patience to keep watching and waiting for deliverance for all the world’s peoples. Amen.