Today’s Gospel story offers something for everyone: characters who follow God through faithful adherence to customs and those who will follow God by breaking with custom; female characters who are as significant as the male; characters from infancy to old age. In fact, this story holds the hopes of at least three generations: a child who embodies hope, loving parents who carry their best hopes in their arms, faithful elders whose hopes are finally realized though they could have given up on hope years before. And this story holds, in the words of a carol, "the hopes and fears of all the years.” The truth is, I have some good news for you, and some bad news.
Some would say it’s very good news that Mary and Joseph take their child to the Temple to initiate him into an ancient religious tradition they’d followed to a T. But strict traditionalists might view it as unfortunate that Jesus would eventually critique much about that tradition. He later understood his religion’s essence well enough and appreciated its best parts fully enough to help reform it—because, like all religious systems, it needed to change to remain vital and faithful. So even though Simeon and Anna are symbols of the religious status quo, they bless a baby who will later violate some of their religious laws—by healing on the Sabbath, for example. They bless the child though their religious leaders would oppose his future ministry. Ironically, the seeds of radical reform can grow in the sure and steady soil of tradition.
The bad news is that all expressions of Christ’s church are imperfect, but the good news is that a self-correcting mechanism is built into the church’s enduring traditions. This story honors those who have remained faithful to traditional pieties and practices but also those who question and upend those traditions. As soon as faithful Simeon blesses this child, he correctly predicts that Jesus will one day be opposed by the very tradition in which he was dedicated, because it is a tradition Jesus will challenge and change. This story should warn us—and encourages us—that the children raised to follow our dearly held church traditions will bring about saving changes the tradition will then oppose. Yet the church, in every generation, must bless the new generation within the very tradition they will eventually reshape, much to our discomfort, much to our potential benefit. The Bad News is that tradition is always Breaking Down. The Good News is that tradition is always Re-forming.
Good and bad news can also be seen in the words of Simeon. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all children were to receive Simeon’s blessing—and all parents receive his warning? Because all of us share in Christ’s mission in this post-Christmas world. Can you picture the old man’s frail arms scooping up the infant, his quavering voice declaring: “Well, I can die happy now because I have seen what it’s all about. My responsibility is over: I see at last how our messed up world will be rescued”?
Now plenty of parents have heard their children praised and have delighted to think that others have recognized their children’s adorable qualities. But Simeon’s praise is so excessive it’s scary. Good news is starting to sound less good—and then the news grows worse with a discomfiting prediction, spoken directly to Mary in a tone suddenly ominous:
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2: 34-35).
He’s saying, first of all, that this child’s saving way involves first a falling and then a rising. This image of falling in order to rise prefigures Jesus’ death and resurrection but is also at the core of many spiritual teaching. Then Simeon adds, “This child’s way will be seen as a threat and will be opposed.” Finally, he tells the young mother, “Your child will cause people—even you, Mary—to grapple with their inner thoughts. This little one is going to cause YOU pain. How hard it will be to turn him loose, to truly dedicate him to the work of bringing God’s peace and love into a violent world. Those who oppose God ways of peace and justice will one day hurt him and when they do, you will feel your very soul pierced. You already know, young mother, how your heart is all entwined in his. Are you really ready to dedicate him to the Lord, Mary? Can you love him enough and trust God enough to give up your own expectations of and for him? You agreed to bear him. Can you now give him back to God in this dedication ceremony? Because, Mary, this child can change the world. But to fulfill his purpose, you must let him be who he is. You must believe that his destiny is bigger than fulfilling your expectations. You must teach him that the future of the world is, in some way YOU don’t understand, dependent upon him. It’s good news and bad news, dear girl. The good news is we have our hero. The bad news is –he’s your son, and his life must be lived for others and his goodness will be opposed. Still want to dedicate him, young mother?”
Maybe at this point Mary wanted to back out of her vow to God. Or maybe in later years Mary’s kinswoman Elizabeth confided her fears for son John. As word reached them about John’s reputation for challenging the authorities, maybe Elizabeth whispered to Mary that she wished she’d soft-pedaled some of that religious stuff. And surely Mary feared, after John’s beheading, what Jesus’s calling might exact. Maybe you, too, have helped nurture children into adulthood—loved and admired them—but also worried about where their calling might take them.
A little over six years ago, while our daughter was finishing law school and interning in Nashville’s public defender’s office where she’s now an assistant PD, she was part of the team defending a man the media dubbed “the wooded rapist”—and whose conviction was eventually covered on NBC’s Dateline. G emailed us a news clip from the trial that shows her walking in with the accused. He wears a yellow jumpsuit that signifies the most dangerous classification of inmates. He is guarded by two courtroom officers. So encumbered by shackles, he needs assistance from my child to be seated. And there he sits at the defense table, shoulder to shoulder, with my baby girl. Six years later, I’m accustomed to the fact that G. spends most of her time in the jail meeting with folks charged with minor to heinous crimes. But six years ago, even though I supported my daughter's vocation, I was disturbed to see with my own eyes the child I’d once protected in my arms sitting beside a man accused of a series of terrible acts. Georgia rightly reminds me that her own calling is to serve “the least of these,” but a sword can pierce a mother in moments when she sees, when she literally sees, what that calling might exact.
Last Sunday I wondered if Mary could possibly have known that her son would follow a scandalous and dangerous calling? This Sunday we wonder if Mary and Joseph glimpsed both the good and bad of Simeon’s prophecy and the “good news” that Anna began sharing about this child.
And now I’m wondering, what if the prophet Anna and elder Simeon, like most preachers and prophets, gave to Jesus’s family the same essential blessings and warnings they had given to countless other families before? What if Anna and Simeon had been encouraging and challenging young parents for decades. But what if this were the first time their words were believed, the first time a young couple had the courage and faith in God to live their lives and raise their child as if the world’s salvation depended upon that child? What would it mean to our world if each one of us treated the children in our lives as if they have the potential to heal the world’s brokenness? How would our parenting be different? Our grandparenting? Our care for children in our congregation and our community? How might we treat differently a sick child in Sierra Leon, a battered child in Guatemala, a hungry child in Alabama Village, an ignored child living across the street?
So here’s what I want you to ponder: If we truly believe the Christmas message that God works through incarnation, and that the Christ event continues today through the Church, then should we not regard every child today as potential vessels of the Christ light? You don’t have to be a parent to see how everything changes for you if you believe that.
What if Anna had been whispering to little girls and young mothers down through the years a blessing that said, “You are so special. God will use you to set this world to rights. And little Mother, how blessed you are to love this very child.” What if Simeon had held boy babies up to God, day after day, with this message for hundreds of fathers: “Your son is special. He will save his people. He will bring light. He is the one.” And isn't this what baptism should convey--as our children follow Jesus in baptism? What if prophecy is not so much about predicting a glorious future for a special individual as it is a fervent hope for all humanity? What if there really is in all of us that spark of the divine, we who are made in God’s image, we who are called to be like Christ?
If that is so, our healing work will be opposed. The way is not easy for parents and children, for heroes and their mothers and fathers, for those who follow the Christ and try to live up to and into a calling to be peacemakers and justice seekers. The way is not easy for those who try to reform religion among the religious. The way is not easy. That’s the bad news. The good news is . . . well, who can say it better than an earlier Hebrew prophet, Isaiah?
“A little child will lead them.”
Prayer: Forgive us, O God, for not realizing that sometimes the bad news contains the good news. Forgive us for squandering opportunities to bless your children. Help us, O God, to see your image in one another. Direct us, God, to be faithful to the essentials and to challenge the inconsistencies.