Thirty or so years ago, my aunt and uncle were pastors of a little church in Calgary, and for a while they did this show on one of the local public access tv stations. I don’t remember very much about it. I think they played music and sang and preached. They probably had guests on. It was 100 Huntley Street without the production value. But I do have one clear memory about their show. When their oldest grandchild was born, my aunt did a segment where she held him in her arms while she read scriptures and talked about the hope and promise that he represented to her. That baby, firstborn of her firstborn, held for her in his tiny being at that moment all the promises of God for the future of her family.
As a nine-year-old I found all this vaguely embarrassing. My aunt on tv talking like she’d invented being a grandparent. And sure, baby Jordan was cute and all, but he was just a baby. There were already a bunch of us kids running around. No one else talked about how the future of the world rested on our shoulders. Still, this particular memory has stayed vivid for me. I carry that image of her holding Jordan and looking into the camera, her belief in God’s promises for her future shining out of her. She is what I always imagine when I read this story of Simeon and Anna.
Here is one of the reasons why it’s helpful to think of us in the Church as parts of one body: no individual has to do all the things at once. We can count on one another. What I mean is, no one person can pray continually, and think about God’s cosmic plan for the universe, and write the sermons and visit the sick and cook for the hungry and support all the charities and shovel all the snow and raise all the kids and do it all at the same time. If I am sitting in a comfortable chair in my living room and I’m warm enough but not too warm and I’m not hungry and I don’t have anywhere else I have to be, I can cast my mind out over the breadth of Scripture and think big thoughts about Isaiah, inspired by the Holy Spirit, writing about the promised Messiah who wouldn’t come for another SEVEN centuries, and then he comes and he’s born in a barn, and his parents are so poor they can only afford the minimum sacrifice when they bring him to the temple, but there’s these two people who have both also been waiting for almost a century each for him to come, and they’re so happy but they’re like, okay thanks God, now I can die, and this tiny story has survived in Luke’s Gospel for TWO THOUSAND YEARS and we’re in a different millennium on the other side of the planet and this story makes me think about my aunt but also Isaiah saying “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God!” But later I need to go and get groceries, and it’s hard to think big thoughts that cross time and space in the dairy section, so someone else will need to take that up. This story is cosmic. We can only hold parts of it in our minds at once. So it’s good that we are part of a Body. We take up each other’s slack.
And now it’s 2020 in Saskatchewan, and it’s been Covid o’clock for months now, and we haven’t seen each other, and won’t see each other for maybe months more, but somehow we’re still one Body of Christ, as close to Mary and Joseph, and Anna and Simeon, and Isaiah, as we are to one another, held as we all are in the mind of God.
And so, while I probably won’t feel this way later on in the grocery store, at the moment I’m right there with Isaiah and the Psalmist: what God has done for us in Jesus is incredible! It’s marvellous! It burns bright like the sun! Everything from sea monsters to angels praise God with their whole beings!
But can we also just take a moment to celebrate the particularity of this story? Luke takes such pains to do this in his Gospel; to situate the story of Jesus in a particular time and place, surrounded by particular people. Forty days after he was born, Mary and Joseph walked the six miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to present Jesus at the temple, because in the law God gave to Moses, all firstborn sons were to be dedicated to God. They also needed to make a sacrifice for Mary’s purification after giving birth, again because of the Law. The usual sacrifice was a lamb and a dove, but God had made provision for poor people all those centuries prior and said that two doves or two pigeons would also be okay for a purification sacrifice. It’s a detail Luke needn’t have included in his story, right? But again, it places the Son of God into history in a particular time and place; born to people who were wonderfully average.
But God continues to break into history. Babies are born every day, but this baby is born and choirs of angels announce it from the sky. Purification rituals and the presentation of firstborn sons also happened every day in Israel, but on this occasion, Simeon and Anna were there. An elderly man and an elderly lady go to church. That’s totally unremarkable, right? But Simeon was different in one way. He had had a very specific message from God about his life: that he would live to see the Messiah. We don’t all get such specific information from God about what will happen to us. And Anna. When a not-uncommon first-century tragedy made her a widow at a very young age, she chose to devote herself to her community by living in the temple, worshipping and fasting not only on her own behalf, but on behalf of everyone else who couldn’t do that, who had jobs and families. Anna fulfilled her part as a member of a larger body. And God spoke to the community through Anna.
Simeon’s song of praise from this passage has been part of our liturgy for hundreds of years now. Someone somewhere prays this prayer with Simeon every single day. Claude and I have been praying it daily together at St. Mary’s since September, on your behalf as well as our own, while you aren’t able come to church. Some of you have been praying it in your homes, maybe faithfully for years. Simeon speaks of God’s salvation, that is, Jesus Christ, being a light of revelation to the Gentiles, that’s us, and glory for the people of Israel. At a particular time and place two millennia ago, God broke in to history to gift us with salvation. Simeon and Anna, and Mary and Joseph were there then to see it, but you know what? They are with us now as well, in the Body of Christ, the communion of saints. I am grateful that God knows me and has saved me in particular, as an individual. But I’m also grateful to belong to something greater than myself. I’m grateful that I belong at St. Mary’s in 2020 with all of you, even though I can’t see you right now. I’m grateful that we are babies and old people, and parents and grandparents, and singles. And I’m grateful that we are the same Body of Christ as Simeon and Anna, Isaiah and Luke, Mary and Joseph. And so, Merry Christmas St. Mary’s family! Let us say with the Psalmist, “Praise the LORD from the heavens, praise the LORD from the earth. Young men and women alike, old and young together! Let [us] praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.” Amen.