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And Not Long After That Night -- Luke 2:22-40 (First Sunday of Christmas)






Last Sunday – over the course of three Christmas Eve services – I figure that we told the Christmas story almost a dozen different ways. We told it with scripture, and sermon, and hymns. We told it in the children’s “New Star” play; and in lessons and carols and candlelight. And in last week’s children’s time, I shared a number of manger scenes – each its own telling of the story – each with its own peculiar casting of characters.

        

Do you know who didn’t make it into any of those manger scenes – who didn’t get a mention in any of those tellings of the Christmas story?  Anna and Simeon.  To be sure, there were Mary and Joseph, and angels and shepherds.  There were sheep, of course, trailing along with the shepherds ... and cows and a donkey and an owl. In some of the manger scenes we looked at last Sunday, there were cats and dogs, and even one elephant. And, as we told the story last week, we imagined into the story – as folks so often do – an innkeeper, for us, a distant cousin midwife, who helps birth the Christ.[1]

But no Anna, no Simeon – these folks who hold the baby Jesus, too.

        

Now, you might say – but Anna and Simeon – they appear in the Christmas story a whole week after Christmas day... 8 days to be precise.  Well, as far as Christmas stories go that really doesn’t cut it as a reason, because without fail we include the three wise men (wise people). And we know that the wise men arrived as much as two years after Jesus was born... it took the wise ones a while to follow yonder star.. and to deal with a cunning and cagey Herod. Anna and Simeon show up in the story much sooner than the three wise men do, but the wise men manage to make it into the manger scene.

        

The Christmas story as we tell it... it is a marvelous mash-up. It is a story woven together from different threads – some of it from the Gospel of Luke... some from Matthew... some of it a fresh expression for a new day. We pull it all together – and we bring everyoneinto one Christmas moment... to celebrate these good tidings of great joy – everyoneexcept Anna and Simeon. 


But here’s the thing... Next to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus... Anna and Simeon are probably the people who most deserve to be there – who most deserve to be in our telling of the Christmas story. In fact, the Christmas story isn’t really complete until we hear what they have to say.

        

You see, Anna and Simeon are the original Advent people.[2] Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the shepherds – they all seem to be taken a bit by surprise. Anna and Simeon – they are the ones who have been waiting. All through Advent, we talk about this waiting, hoping people. We talk about how the people are living under the heel of Caesar – oppressed not only by empire, but by complicit and corrupt religious power. And so the people long... they long for comfort, for their time of oppression to be ended... they long for someone who will rise up – a Messiah, a Christ.

        

I read this past week that what for us seems so central to Advent and Christmas – this Advent longing – may not have been as universal an expectation in their world.[3] At least, it may not have been on the fore of everyone’s mind.  Regular folks in those days are living life. They are living a bare subsistence living, just getting by from day to day. Their daily thoughts are likely focused on... surviving.. where do we get food to feed the family... today? And, they’d been held low for so long now... how much hope could one really have?


There are revolutionaries who rise up now and then.. only to be crushed by empire. And in between those uprisings, there are a few who keep this hope alive – who nurse and nurture this hope – the sure promise of a steadfast and faithful God who will come to save the people from everything that does them harm.


Enter Simeon and Anna.  Our scripture says that on the 8th day after Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph take him to the Temple to be dedicated and circumcised in accordance with the Law  And they encounter there Simeon and Anna – who have been waiting for this moment.


Scripture tells us that Simeon is righteous and devout, and that he is waiting for “the consolation of Israel.”  That “comfort, comfort my people” – Simeon is waiting for that. And it’s been revealed to him that he will see it before he dies. The sense of the Scripture is – he’s been waiting for the consolation of Israel for many, many years.


And one morning, the Spirit nudges Simeon to go to the Temple courts – where he meets Mary and Joseph, who bring the newborn Jesus. And Simeon takes the newborn in his arms, and he experiences that full-on consolation – and he proclaims, “God you can now dismiss your servant in peace – for I have seen your salvation – all that you have prepared – all for which we have waited – you have now placed this in my arms – a light of revelation to the Gentiles and glory for your people” – all in this newborn child. Now, “Dismiss your servant in peace.” Basically, Simeon says, I can die fulfilled now. His Advent waiting is complete.


And there’s Anna. Anna is a prophet – and we should take note just at that, because Scripture doesn’t often remember the women prophets. Anna is the only woman called a prophet in the New Testament, and there are only a handful in the Hebrew Scriptures.[4]Anna is a prophet. She is 84 years old, and – like Simeon – she has been waiting most of her life. Anna never leaves the Temple – she worships, she fasts, and she prays. And after all those years of waiting and praying and fasting, Anna sees Mary and the newborn Christ, and she knows – she knows what this moment means, because she has been waiting, she has given her life to it. And so, Anna goes and does what prophets do. She goes and shares the Good News of what God is up to in the world. Anna tells it to all who are looking and longing for redemption and freedom.


In the Christmas story, in these moments of new birth, these two older folks take the baby in their arms – and they say: This is it. This is the consolation of Israel. This is God’s saving help come yet again, once for all. This is good news and light and liberation – for all people. All that we have longed for over generations of struggle and suffering: This is it.Anna and Simeon remind us that the new birth that is happening here is not unmoored from what has gone before. This is God’s fresh new Word, welling up from what God has been doing all along – God coming to save God’s people from all that does us harm.


Anna and Simeon are the original Advent people. They carry with them “the history and longing of their people[5] into this new day. The Christmas story isn’t complete until we hear Simeon and Anna say, “This is it.”


But that’s not all there is to this story. This isn’t just the last scene in Luke’s Christmas story. This Scripture is indeed full of Advent waiting – and it is indeed an integral part of the Christmas story – “the hopes and fear of all the years ... are met in thee tonight.” 

It also carries with it a moment of Epiphany. In the Gospel of Matthew, the Epiphany – the revelation – the comes with the wise men – but here it is recognized and named in the voices of these two elders – the righteous Simeon and the prophet Anna. 


And look even a bit more closely: In this story, there’s Advent, and Christmas, and Epiphany, but there’s also a whisper of Good Friday. Did you notice? I’m sure that Mary did – Mary, who has been pondering all these things in her heart – who marvels as Simeon announces great things about her son. As Simeon gently hands back the baby Jesus to Mary, Simeon says to her: “This child will cause the falling and the rising of many. He will be a Word that will be opposed. And a sword will pierce your own heart too.” There is pain to come. Good Friday.


And there is also here, also a breath – ever so subtle – of Easter... that “falling and rising of many” – that rising is the Resurrection word.


And then notice, too, who else in this Scripture doesn’t get much mention in the Christmas story: The Holy Spirit.  Did you see that? The Holy Spirit is the one who moves the action here – who inspires, empowers. The Holy Spirit is upon Simeon. The Spirit has revealed to Simeon that he will see the Christ. And the Holy Spirit moves him to go to the Temple. There’s even a bit of Pentecost in there’s Scripture.


This story carries with it all that has come before the Gospel – the hopes and fears of all the years – met and incarnate now in the Christ child. But this scripture isn’t just the closing scene in the Christmas story. With the birth of Christ, it turns and moves us into all that is yet to come. This story also carries with it the whole of the life of Christ – opening up to us now – all of us – light to the gentiles, glory to those who have long been God’s people, through all the travails of life, even death, on into even more life.


This story of Anna and Simeon – the words they say – the life they live – the promise and present reality of the baby in their arms – this story carries with it all that – great good news, for this brand new day.


And so, as we take in this story in this moment – on this last day of 2023, on this eve of a new year – as we take in this culminating story – this fresh word for a brand new day – here are some Anna and Simeon questions to carry with us:


What are you carrying with you as you come to this moment? It may not be as enormous as “the hopes and fears of all the years,” but then again it may be. Maybe it’s a longing or a hope. Maybe it’s a burden – a hurt, a grudge, a broken relationship yet unhealed. Maybe it’s determination – a Word to make this world a better place, a Word of life and justice, a Word only you can speak and embody. Maybe it’s a bit of this and a bit of that.


What are you carrying with you as you come to this moment?


Out of all that, what is it you need to release? That’s what Simeon claims – release. What burden do you need to set down? What do you need to leave in 2023 to be more free in the year about to dawn? What have you clung to for far too long – that you need to let go? What do you need help carrying?


And let’s not assume it’s all burden. What Simeon and Anna experience here – what they share – is blessing through and through. What blessing do you carry into this moment, too? What intention, what gift, what gratitude, what tender mercy? What do you bring that you can share for the well-being of the world?


One of the reasons that I think that the Christmas story isn’t complete until we hear from Anna and Simeon is because in the Gospel of Luke – all these folks we meet along the way – they tell this story together:


·      From the moment the angel silences Zechariah and 9 months later lets him speak: “God has come to God’s people to set them free!”


·      Through the moment Elizabeth blesses Mary, and Mary sings: “God is bringing down the powers, and lifting up the lowly. God is filling the hungry with good things! God is doing this in me.


·      Through the moment when angels bring shepherds good tidings of great joy – the shepherds see the child and tell Mary – and then go tell it to any and all,


·      As Mary ponders all these things in her heart,


·      And as Simeon and Anna – carrying the longing of a people and God’s faithful love through the generations – as Anna and Simeon hold the Christ child and say: “This is it. Light for the nations, glory for God’s people. God is near. God is here. The fullness of God, pulsing in the fullness of humanity. This is it.” --


They tell the story together. They live it out together.


In their moment and in ours, this Good News is the culmination of all that has come before, and the very first moment in a brand new day. Everyone is a part of this story, and we tell it together.




© 2023 Scott Clark

        


[2] For background on this text and the Gospel of Luke, see Warren Carter, Commentary in Connections, Year B, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2020), pp. 128-131; Julie Peeples, Commentary in Connections, Year B, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2020), pp. 131-33; R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. ix(Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995); Sharon Ringe, Luke (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1995); Raj Nadella, Commentary on Working Preacher at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/first-sunday-of-christmas-2/commentary-on-luke-222-40-7

[3] See Carter, p.130

[4] See Barbara E. Reid, OP, and Shelly Matthews, Wisdom Commentary – Luke 1-9 (Amy-Jill Levine, ed.)  (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2021 (Barbara E. Reid, OP, Gen. Ed.)), p.215.

[5] See Carter, p.131.


Photo credit: The photo above is of a window at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, which includes a Simeon and Anna panel (lower left) in its telling of the Christmas story. The photo is by K. Mitch Hodge, and used with permission via Unsplash.

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