The days in between Christmas and New Year’s have always been among my favorites. After all the chaos of Christmas, but before life returns to “normal,” we have these precious, spacious, open days. Forgive me for giving in too much to the ‘magic’ of the secular Christmas spirit, but this time always feels special, expansive — like anything could happen as we get ready to turn the page into a new year.
The story we read in today’s Gospel has a similar feeling to me. It’s forty days after Jesus’ birth. The shepherds have long since gone back to their fields and the angels back to doing their angelic things. Mary and Joseph are getting ready to return to Nazareth, but have one stop to make first: Mary’s seclusion after childbirth has ended and it’s time to present Jesus in the Temple. It’s a special day, but it’s special in the way of normal rituals and rites of passage. But on this particular day, God had something else in mind.
At this point in the story, Luke shifts our attention away from Mary and Joseph to a man named Simeon. Luke introduces him as “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel,” and tells us that “the Holy Spirit rested on him” and promised him he would not die before he had seen his people’s salvation (2.25f). Prompted by the Spirit, Simeon goes to the Temple and is overcome when he takes the infant Jesus into this arms. The words he utters have resonated with Christians throughout the centuries as “Simeon’s Song,” or the Nunc Dimittis:
Lord, you are now releasing your servant in peace, in accordance with your word:
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared before the face of all the people,
a light of revelation for the Nations
and the glory of Your people Israel.
We can sometimes miss the meaning of what Simeon is saying here (either despite or because of the familiarity of the words). In everyday English, we might imagine this smiling old man, with tears in his eyes, saying, “Lord, now I can die in peace because I’ve seen the salvation You have prepared for us, just like You promised: a light who will reveal You to the whole world, and the crowning glory of Your people Israel.”
These are beautiful and touching words that must have filled everyone present with joy and wonder.
But, prophecy doesn’t do well with half-told truths, so Simeon, continues with a more sobering thought: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and sign that will divide, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (2.34f).
As Isaiah prophesied, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” But Simeon’s words remind us of what those challenging lessons from Advent were teaching us: Light doesn’t shine without consequence: Light reveals what has been hiding in the shadows. Light exposes what we would rather keep hidden. It is therefore the great equalizer: uncovering what makes our hearts tick, revealing the us for what we really are behind the facades, and causing many to fall and many to rise up in the process. And, a world used to darkness abhors the light. We may rightly be uncomfortable with some of the “Jesus was born to die” language of popular theology; but, he was born to be light in a dark world, and to expose and challenge the hypocrisy and delusions of human hearts and minds. And, the world being as it is, that pretty much amounts to the same thing. In this prophetic moment, Simeon sees all this. The child — the beautiful, promised, long-expected salvation of God’s people — won’t have an easy life, and by consequence, Mary too can expect her soul to be pierced with sorrow. (If Matthew’s version of the story is any indication, it will be sooner than later: this little family will become refugees in a matter of days or months.)
This may be a buzzkill, but it’s all true. The Kingdom of God is always at odds with the Principalities and Powers of this world. And so, even as we bask in the joy of Christmas, Holy Week is always just over the horizon. But this is still Good News. For nothing can get better in the world without things changing. And this forty day-old baby will change everything.
Simeon’s prophecy is interrupted by another voice. Anna, an elderly widow who spends most of her days praying at the Temple, speaks up with a prophecy of her own. Sadly Luke did not record her words for us, but he says “At that moment she arrived and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2.38).
For those who are looking, Jesus is good news. But they can’t expect anything to stay the same.
And I think this is the message for us in this week after Christmas, the last week of this strange and heartbreaking year: The coming of Jesus is bright and beautiful and opens up a new, expansive, world of possibility, that dream of God we can only see now in our sanctified imagination. Our eyes have seen God’s salvation. But in order for any of that possibility to come to pass, we have to be willing to let go of what we know and embrace the change Jesus brings. And yes, it’s challenging. Yes, it will bring heartbreak and sorrow. But it is good. It is good.