Lectionary Passage: Luke 2: 22-35 (36-40)
22When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then Simeon blessed them and said to 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 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
So before you exhale after all your cooking and wrapping and running around frantically to get everything done, I have to tell you that we’re not done. The truth is, the birthing is never really over. This is the Season of Christmas (as opposed to the Season of Advent that we just completed). But we don’t get a whole lot of help from the Scriptures. We read the story of Jesus’ birth and then Scripture accounts of the days and years that followed are spotty at best. This passage is one of the few accounts of Jesus’ childhood. But it is a reminder that Jesus was a Jew, lived among Jews, and, for that matter, was Jewish for his entire life.
So, in this passage that we read, our story has jumped forty days from the birth story that we read just a few days ago. Eight days after Jesus had been born, he had, in accordance with Jewish law, been circumcised and named. Now thirty-two days later, they go to the temple. The trip is serving two purposes. First of all, Mary must be purified. According to the twelfth chapter of Leviticus, after a woman gives birth, she is impure for forty days. At the end of that time, she is to bring an offering to the temple and be purified. Additionally, Jesus, the firstborn son, is to be consecrated and offered to God.
So, in this moment, a man named Simeon appears. It says that he took Jesus in his arms. Can you imagine Mary and Joseph’s reaction? After all, this was their newborn, probably the first time that they had ever really had him out in public, and this old man comes out of the shadows and scoops up their child. But something made them step back. Was it his words, or his demeanor, or something else? This frail, older man, held the child with a tenderness that was amazing. He cradles Jesus in his arms and looks into his eyes. And he begins to prophesy.
But the words were a bit different than the foretelling over the last months and weeks from angels and shepherds and the like. “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Simeon was a righteous and devout man. His Jewish faith had been important to him his entire life. And that faith included a promise that God would indeed send a Savior, a Messiah. And he knew that his life would not end until he had seen the promise fulfilled. So he looked down into the bright, dark brown eyes of this child and he knew. Simeon had waited his entire life for this child, for this moment. Now he could die in peace. Don’t take that as a giving up of life. It was his resolve. His life, his promise, had been fulfilled. He was at such peace that he couldn’t even imagine life being any more than it was in this moment. He had not waited for moments or the four weeks of Advent or even a few months. He had waited decades, his entire life, for this moment.
Simeon’s Song, the Nunc Dimittis (Latin for “now send away”), is sometimes sung after Communion and often at the end of a funeral. It is a plea for peace. He is not asking for death; he is accepting it and with it, the promise of redemption. For Simeon, death is no longer a pall that hangs over him; it is part of life.
So as Simeon, with a gleam of life in his eyes, hands the child back to Mary, he adds: This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too. In other words, once again, things are about to change. This child is special. This child provokes a decision that each person must make. Notice the order. We talk of the rise and fall of people, the rise and fall of nations, the rise and fall through history of whole societies. But THIS child, THIS child will cause the falling and rising, THIS child will turn the world upside down and bring life. In that moment, Mary knew that she would experience grief. But she also knew that her grief would rise and become life.
So why are we talking about death so soon after the glory of Jesus’ birth? Shouldn’t we get a little bit of a reprieve before we start walking to the cross? The reason is that the two cannot be separated. Simeon knew who Jesus was. He saw Jesus’ life. He saw Jesus’ death. And he saw life again. He saw, even at that early time, the signs of redemption.
So what do we do with this? You know, we probably should have known. This thing for which we have hoped, and waited, had to involve us in some way. God was born unto us. We, like Simeon, have God on our hands. What do we do with God now? I don’t know about you but on some level, it’s hard to find the right words. Maybe all we have left to do is praise and sing and respond. God has come into this world and is here, here on our hands.
The truth, of course, is that Jesus’ coming does not end with the calendar or with the festivities or with the final packing-up. His coming is always a beginning and a sending. We, too, are now sent away. We, too, are at peace with letting our old selves die and becoming the ones unto whom Christ was born. The hope that was so prevalent during Advent, the promise for which we waited and prepared, is here, right before us. God is with us, on our hands.
Christ has come! God has been born unto us and we have God all over our hands. Jesus’ coming begins our going. We are not sent into the world with all the answers or with an assurance that we really even know what we’re doing. Our directions, like our Scriptures, are spotty at best. We are not called to be perfect; we are not called to be brilliant; we are called to be courageously faithful, to go, to go and be Christ in the world. Christ has come! And we have begun.
It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work. And when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. (Wendell Berry)
Grace and Peace,
One thought on “With God on Our Hands”
Ah yes! The story of Simeon and the Christ Child told in the singing of the Nunc dimittis, something that I miss doing with our church choir.