I hope you’re having a merry Christmas season.
The readings for today included a canticle we hear from time to time: The Song of Simeon:
Master, now you have set your servant free, to go in peace as you have promised; for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, whom you have prepared for all the world to see; a Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.
In worship, the Song of Simeon is usually reserved for the Prayer offices or a funeral, and is usually spoken. But in the Gospel today, I think it becomes a Christmas song…even if it lacks the usual images.There are no angel choruses or bells ringing, no shepherds or stars, no lowing animals and no baby lying in a manger. The heavenly host has packed up and gone, leaving only the basics: revelation, joy and praise, and an indelible image, which I’ll come back to in a moment.
But before that, a little about Luke. We like to hear Luke’s gospel account of Christ’s birth every year, because Luke was the kind of author to hang wonderful detail on the structure of his gospel, including the story today. The narrative shows Mary and Joseph following ancient tradition, in full obedience to the law of Moses. It was the day of his circumcision, and he was given a name. But Luke recorded two other events in this story: Mary was purified for the Temple, and Jesus was presented to God in the temple. And it seems a bit off, because circumcision and the giving of a name took place on the 8th day after birth. But the purification and the presentation didn’t happen until forty days had passed.
Luke crowded these events together into one narrative with good reason; he was making an important theological point…Crammed together into one story, these four events - circumcision and naming, dedication and purification – were customs that Luke’s readers would recognize from ancient law and tradition, and they served to demonstrate that in Jesus, no righteousness went unfulfilled…in Jesus, Judaism was properly continued and the laws fulfilled. Was that so important? Of course.
Imagine someone applying to be the rector who had never been confirmed, never attended an Episcopal seminary, and had not been officially ordained by the laying on of a bishop’s hands. No search committee of vestry or bishop would ever agree to that.Our tradition of apostolic succession, by which we validate ordination, stretches back, (or so we hope,) to the earliest days of the church, and our valid expectation is that our clergy will be a part of that tradition.
So, just as the traditional process is important to us, so it was at Jesus’ birth; Jewish traditions reached back to Abraham. By crowding those four events together, Luke showed that Jesus was fully a part of that tradition. But then, Luke included something else that not only moved the story along, but also left the image that has endured…Simeon came along and sang his Christmas canticle.
Simeon was an elderly man, full of righteousness and hope. And he had been promised, through prophecy, that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah with his own eyes. Simeon is representative of all those among God’s people who had been waiting and watching all those centuries…keeping the faith until God’s promise was made a reality.
Simeon was inspired by the Holy Spirit to recognize, in the infant Jesus, the fulfillment of his hope, as was Anna, a prophetess, a widow who spent her days and nights in prayer at the temple. Anna was inspired by the child Jesus to offer consolation and hope to all at the temple that day, hope of the fulfilment of God’s ancient promise of a Messiah. Together, Simeon and Anna represent all those who, led by the Holy Spirit, see in Jesus the fulfilment of their hope. But it’s Simeon I want to come back to.
Keeping both the church calendar and the Gregorian calendar in mind, today we are both midway through the Christmas season, but also at the end of one year, and the beginning of another. The New Year is generally an optimistic time …a time to improve ourselves, set new goals, seek new disciplines, hope for new beginnings. Our enduring symbol of the New Year celebration is the old man welcoming the newborn baby; one year has come and run its course, and now welcomes the new year.
Simeon – an old man who represented the righteousness and hope of Israel - takes the infant Jesus in his hands, lifts him to God, and blesses him. And he sings a song of praise…a song of joy in God’s fulfillment of his ancient promise…God’s son has become the consolation of Israel. But in Luke’s narrative, Simeon also foresaw the troubles ahead for Jesus…that he would be a center of controversy, and the occasion for the fall and rise of many in Israel…an allusion to Isaiah 28:16. And saddest of all, that he would be a cause of piercing grief to his mother.
But still, his canticle was a song of joy. The day they had waited for, longed for over the centuries had come. Israel’s consolation. And salvation for the Gentiles, too…the light that would enlighten the nations had begun to shine. The divine covenant of righteous law – the covenant God made with Moses - could now mover over, making room a new, eternal covenant of Grace, according to the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel, and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt…
I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people…. They will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.
For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.
This is our enduring Christmas gift… to live in this covenant of Grace, a gift that was promised over the centuries, made a reality at the incarnation of Jesus, and ratified by his sacrifice on Calvary. And when we are gathered together to celebrate this covenant, we praise God in the same spirit as Simeon, who took a baby born to die, and held him up to eternity. If you’re looking for a symbol for the last Sunday in the year, which this year happened to fall on New Year’s Eve, well…here it is – an old man with a baby - it seems ready-made.
But really, the image is something far more profund than just another year passing…it’s a symbol of spiritual renewal…and the Grace that God imparted to His creation by offering us reconciliation and wholeness through the birth, life, death and resurrection of his son, Jesus. And it’s all there in that moment - captured in Luke’s gospel - when an old man holds a baby toward heaven…and begins to sing.