Texts: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Luke 2:22-40
As you know, last week a number of countries, including Canada, closed their borders to travelers from the UK. This was caused by fears of a new strain of COVID-19. It all happened so quickly that many truck drivers from continental Europe ended up stranded outside the port of Dover and the channel tunnel in Kent. One of these was a Brit named Rick Mayo. Rick told an American journalist that he had moved his family to Spain because the cost of living was cheaper. But there he was parked at a rest stop, unable to cross back to France. The BBC said that on Tuesday almost 3,000 trucks were stuck waiting for the border to reopen. Rick said that, even if the border opened in the next day or so, it was unlikely that he would be able to make it home for Christmas.
Later in the week the French and British governments reached an agreement to reopen the border, but I don’t know how many of those lorry drivers made it home for Christmas. What I want us to get in touch with is that sense of waiting and anticipation. I imagine that for most of those truckers the waiting was not a side interest. It enveloped them.
Our reading from the gospel of Luke this morning introduces us to two characters whose lives were enveloped in similar waiting: there is a man named Simeon and a woman named Anna. Anna, we are told, was a prophet who never left the temple. She worshiped and prayed their constantly. Simeon was a righteous man, filled with God’s Spirit. His main hope was to see the restoration of his people.
We are still in the opening chapters of Luke’s story of the life of Jesus. And here we find several speeches included by Luke to tell us what the birth of Jesus means. There is the event itself, the expectation and birth of a child, but what does it mean? It is not extraordinary for a poor couple from a marginalized group to welcome a baby.
Just this past week a smuggler’s boat sunk off the coast of Tunisia. Twenty migrants died. Thirteen remain unaccounted for. Of those who are known to have died, four were pregnant women. Each of these certainly had her own story.
To help us understand the meaning of one particular pregnancy and birth, Luke uses the voices of Mary, Elizabeth, Zachariah, Simeon and several angels. Mary tells us that through the child’s birth God will scatter the proud, satisfy the hungry, and fulfill promises made to Abraham and Sarah. Zechariah tells us Jesus’ birth is an act of divine mercy that will ultimately save Israel from her enemies. An angel tells the shepherds that Jesus’ birth is “good news [and] great joy for all the people.”
Anna and Simeon are like the shepherds in that they have no connection to the holy family. Their inclusion represents the beginning of the news reaching “all people.” Luke will follow this thread into the book of Acts. The news ripples out. It changes things. Neither Anna nor Simeon is mentioned in any other gospel account of Jesus’ birth. Yet their brief appearance is instructive.
Our text says that when Jesus was brought to the temple, Anna praised God. She spoke boldly about the role this child would have in the redemption of Jerusalem.
Simeon actually gets to hold the child. He takes the baby in his arms. Simeon’s face breaks into smile. He relaxes and praises God. He’s waited for a long time. With the baby in his arms, Simeon says, he can die contented. He’s seen God’s salvation with his own eyes. And he knowns that this work of God won’t stop at the border. The child in his arms is a “light of revelation” even to the gentiles.
You know what babies look like: they have small rounded features, their fingers are like little twigs, their pudgy flesh creases when they move. The expression of a baby can change entirely based the smallest thing that you do. Hide a toy behind your back and a baby assumes it’s gone forever. Make something rattle and the baby thinks you’re a maestro.
Simeon looks at this baby in his arms. He blesses the parents. And then, you can almost see a shadow pass over the old man’s face. He pauses. He breaths deeply. He thinks. Maybe the baby grabs one of his fingers.
Simeon turns to Mary, and he says, “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.” Simeon pauses again. Still looking at Mary, he concludes, saying, “and a sword will pierce your soul too.”
And then Simeon walks out of the pages of Luke’s story. We never hear of him or of Anna again.
We can well imagine this was an interaction that Mary would never forget: the elation and the shadow.
The word ‘revelation’ occurs twice in Simeon’s words. And, if you know your Bible, you know that standing behind the English word ‘revelation’ is often the apokalypsis. That is true here. In scripture the word apokalypsis does not necessarily imply destruction, as it does when we use it in English. Rather, it means that something hidden has been uncovered, something has been laid bare, made visible or, even, made naked.
We’ve mostly been restrained in talking about our global pandemic as an apocalypse. That may be because these 1.7 million deaths have happened in private. The bodies have been veiled and dealt with quickly. It doesn’t look like an apocalypse from the movies. And yet, just as the biblical term implies, some things have been made clear.
We know that our elders have often been poorly housed and those who support them poorly paid. We see more clearly than before the deep importance of having a safe ‘home’ in which to shelter. As well, the selfishness and stupidity of too many church leaders has been uncovered in public. This unveiling continues.
The Bible occasionally refers to the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus as an apocalypse: the apocalypse of Jesus. This, I think, is what Simeon saw when he held the child: the apocalypse of Jesus. It’s why he said the “inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”
The revelation of Jesus has two sides. It shows us something about God: God’s love, God’s value of created flesh, God’s willingness to accept vulnerability and weakness. Yes and yes, to all that the apocalypse of Jesus reveals about God. There is more though. It also reveals something about us.
When Simeon looked at the baby in his arms he probably realized how very much he didn’t understand. Think about the rest of Jesus’ story. Who understands Jesus? John the Baptist and Mary sort of understand, but does anyone else? Not really. There are glimpses. Moments of deeper understanding, moments of realization. But nobody, not even those closest to him, really understand. For all that we read about revelation in the life of Jesus, misunderstanding is always holding the other hand.
Simeon must have known, at the last moment, that the divine salvation for which he waited wouldn’t fit neatly into his world. In the baby’s face and hands he saw falling, rising, rupture, opposition, disclosure, even a sword’s incision.
The difficult thing for us then is that there is no conclusion. Yes, Luke wants us to understand something about the meaning of Jesus’ birth. But with these words from Simeon, he opens up a path forward that isn’t fully defined. In fact the words of Simeon tell us that whatever we think we know about the meaning of Jesus—it’s not exactly right. Whatever words the carols use, they speak of the past, they speak of the story that has led to this moment, our moment, the present moment, our encounter with the apocalypse of Jesus.
Where Christmas points us, then, isn’t to knowledge about a story we know or a formula of incarnation chemical in its precision. No, Christmas points us toward a place more alive and more dangerous, a place where that which is built is torn down, where that which is only a hope is built, a place where what we hide is laid bare, a place where love pierces our armor.
The philosopher Jack Caputo, puts it more broadly when he says, “The name of God . . . is not a term of art, a technical or lifeless word coined by philosophers for their speculative purposes, but it is a word forged in the fires of life, in the joys and sorrows of ordinary life, a word . . . commonplace, yet bottomless, always on the tip of our tongue yet incomprehensible.”
What the Christmas story points us toward is not a conclusion, but prayer. It points us to the prayer that the apocalypse of Jesus will reveal God to us anew and disclose to us parts of ourselves we have yet to really see. That’s the only conclusion we can come to after listening to Simeon’s talk with Mary: prayer to a living God when the comfort for which we hope upends our expectations and upcycles hope itself.
Let me leave you with this blessing from the end of Romans: “Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to [the] gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed . . . through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen”