Christmas 1 – Circumcision – Presentation of Christ
B 31-12-2017 A & C – Luke 2 21-40
One of the things I find myself involved with very often is a hand-over – baptisms, confirmations, marriages, being with the dying and funerals.
Custodians of a tradition – of a practice, of special knowledge, custodians of a particular hope – have to pass it on into the care of the next generation; to pass it on, and let go in trust.
It’s seldom as explicit in the Scriptures as it is in today’s Gospel reading.
Old Simeon and Anna saw in the Christ-Child the fulfilment of all their hopes.
His coming set them free to declare what they knew – to hand over the tradition, and in Simeon’s case, to delight that he could finally close his eyes and rest in peace for ever.
Listen to Simeon’s words as he takes Jesus in his arms:
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
Mary and Joseph had gone to the Temple to fulfil some ancient Jewish customs. For seven days after a Hebrew woman gave birth to a boy, she was viewed as being ritually unclean (14 days after a girl). At the end of that time, the boy would be brought to be circumcised and named. Then his mother would enter thirty-three days of purification (66 days after a girl: Lev 12.2-8). Jewish Law required that at the end of that time, she present an offering for her purification.
This ritual also looked back to the escape from Egypt. Exodus 13 says that every firstborn child of the Hebrews was to be especially dedicated to God – to serve in the Temple. But as the ‘ordained’ service of God came to be something that only tribe of Levi did, the law was softened so that parents could ‘redeem’ their children. They went to the Temple to make an offering which ritually bought back their firstborn from God.
Today, Luke shows the Holy Family coming to the Temple a couple of weeks after Jesus’s circumcision for the ritual exchange which sees Mary restored to ritual purity, and her first-born son at once offered and redeemed.
But the song of Simeon and the prophecy of Anna burst into this ritual. Simeon declares Jesus to be ‘a light for revelation to all peoples; God’s glory’. He sees everything which the Temple had embodied now lying cradled in his faithful old arms. And then the ancient prophet, Anna who also comes at that moment ‘began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem…’
Simeon and Anna had lived very long lives of faithful service to God. For them, this was at once a moment of exultation and one of release. They could let go; they could die in peace; somebody else could carry the load now.
It takes the eyes of age – the experience of years – to be able to trust that all this hope could possibly be left safely in a baby’s hands. It takes the certainty that God is involved.
Simeon’s song is sometimes called the night-prayer of his life and it remains the Church’s night-prayer; handing over to God the troubles of each day. It’s also the prayer of priests as we lead a funeral procession from the church, and into the graveyard. The message Simeon gave the parents of the Christ-Child was not all rosy. He blessed them and then told his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
This has always been the experience of hand-over in the church. The falling and the rising, the opposition, the exposure and the agony are what Simeon foresees for Mary, for Jesus – and prophetically for us, the body of Christ too.
These are very much our predicament and our blessing. They are part of our experience of holding on to faith. Simeon and Anna know this about life, and nevertheless they proclaim it as revelation and understanding.
We have faithful seers and servants who have been holding on to faith here for a very long time; people who have received the faith from their forebears, and by God’s grace, have borne the light aloft for many years.
The younger ones here now share the burden with you, faithful fathers and mothers of our church, and must hold the light aloft in a different world. What do you see ahead of us?
Perhaps it’s strange for us to have to proclaim that the life of faith is just as vulnerable and exposed as anyone else’s life. If it is, then what, indeed, are we proclaiming?
In the Christ Child, we are proclaiming that God is with us in those trials and joys; that the difference about a life of faith is that it’s in shared hands, no matter what may befall. And the mark of that sharing is that it’s chosen, and marked by mutual love and respect. And that holds good even if our hands seem as feeble as a baby’s for holding that trust.
We need to make it a prayer for ourselves, that when we hand over the light of faith to those who come after us, we do so without reserve and yet with an honest picture of what it entails – whether joyous or painful.
People are enabled to hold on to the faith by God’s grace; not by our own strength or worth.
In the company of the Christ Child, just as surely as in the company of the crucified Christ, we and our children are blessed to hold aloft the light of faith for long lifetime. This is our prayer and our faith. And it can be that with no regrets or fears, because what we place in others’ hands, we do with ourselves cradled in the hands of our maker, our judge and our lover. Amen