A Provocation: First Sunday After Christmas: December 31, 2017: Luke 2:22-40

Luke 2:22-40
2:22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord

2:23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”),

2:24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

2:25 Now 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.

2:26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

2:27 Guided 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,

2:28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

2:29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;

2:30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,

2:31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

2:32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

2:33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.

2:34 Then 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

2:35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

2:36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,

2:37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.

2:38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

2:39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.

2:40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

A Question or a Two:

  • When have you seen people do what Anna and Simeon do?
  • What do they look and sound like?

Some Longer Reflections:

Why do we assume Simeon is old?

Maybe it because his story is associated with Anna’s story, and she is 84 years old, which is well-aged In any century, old enough to have seen hopes and fears come and go and return again.

Maybe it’s because he is described as “righteous and devout.”  These terms, in my imagination, apply best to people with some age on them, some seasoning, some gracefulness that only comes with long practice.  Young people who are serious about religion I would describe as “enthusiastic,” and I would wait to see how they ripened.  Some grow deep and wise.  Some just get loud.  Simeon sounds deep and wise.

Maybe we think he is old because Mary lets him take the baby from her.  Not many mothers are going to hand over their newborn to some random young man who might never have held a baby.  An old man, who might be a grandfather with lots of experience, maybe she would let such a person hold her baby.  Maybe.  But maybe this is why we assume Simeon is old enough for Mary to trust him.

What matters most about Simeon, I think, is that he is described as “looking forward.”  That is an interesting phrase in English.  Because of the way our heads are built, we ALWAYS are looking forward.  But it is even more important to note that we are built, as human beings, to look forward, to peer beyond the messy present moment in an effort to see a future that corrects things that need correcting.  Tim O’Brien describes this human trait (in his his book The Things They Carried) this way: “You are filled with a hard, aching love for what the world could be, and always should be, but now is not.”  This is exactly what it means to “look forward.”  This is what Simeon is doing.

The word in Greek, προσδεχόμενος, is also interesting.  The first part of the word, προσ-, is caught by the “forward” part of the English translation.  It expresses a forwardness, a leaning and reaching that are essential to catch in rendering this word.  But the last part of this word, -δεχόμενος, doesn’t mean “looking.”  The metaphor behind this word in Greek expresses “receiving.”  So προσδεχόμενος suggests something like “receiving forward,” an activity that you can’t do unless you lean, reach, and stretch toward something that you need, but cannot yet grasp.  Once again, O’Brien gets it right: “…what the world could be, and always should be….”


The word for “waiting” in Hebrew, qavah, is behind this little scene with Simeon, and the Greek word προσδεχόμενος catches the Hebrew background better than does the English. Qavah (“wait”) carries the metaphoric hint of being stretched tight, stretched even to the breaking point, like a string on a guitar, tightened and tightened and tightened yet some more, until finally it is about to snap.

Simeon, the storyteller informs us, is stretched tight.  If he were a younger man, he would be about to snap.  Thank goodness he has learned the lessons about waiting that only old people can learn.  They wait.  They feel the tension, perhaps more powerfully than young people even can, because they have waited so often, and so long.  For some essential things they have waited longer than I have been alive.  In my experience, this does not make them complacent, it does not make them cease to hope.  If anything, old people wait with a settled insistence that stuns me.

Listen to Isaiah 25:9: “it will be said in that day, ‘This is our God, we have waited for him.’”  I hear an 80-year-old voice when I read that verse, a voice that has waited for the end of labor and delivery, for children to finally find their balance, for wars to end, and for safety to return.

What matters especially in this story is that Simeon is not alone in his waiting.  Anna, a prophet, is waiting wth him.  And she speaks (a good thing for a prophet to do), she speaks about the baby to all those who were also waiting.  There seem to be a great many of them.

The older I get, the more I find myself to be waiting, the more I hear Tim O’Brien’s words to describe all of life.  When I was young, I waited for the end of the semester, or to graduate (from this school or that one).  I waited to find a job, to find a better apartment, or to own a house.  All of those things were just a matter of time, and I knew it.  Waiting was something you could put on a calendar, more or less.

Waiting is more complicated these days.  I have friends and students who are waiting to be deployed, some of them for the third or fourth time.  I am waiting with them, and I wait for them to return.  But I find myself stuck with O’Brien’s “hard, aching love.”   I find myself feeling the tension of generations of mothers and fathers who waited for any of this to make real sense.  I feel more acutely the tension between the historically repeated necessity of sending our children off to war and the historic awareness (expressed in John McCutcheon’s song about the Christmas truce in WWI, Christmas in the Trenches) that:

The ones who call the shots won’t be among the dead and lame

And on each end of the rifle we’re the same.

I am waiting with friends facing difficult diagnoses, waiting for remissions, or for cures, or for aggressive disease processes to work themselves out.  I suppose that I used to think that these separate hopes exclude each other, but even my limited experience with waiting has taught me that even “cures” can turn into end-stage disease states with a rapidity that leaves us dizzy and disoriented.  And I have learned that it can go the other way, as well.  Waiting is complicated, these days, and that is true even before we add in the waiting we all do for a day when we find the political will and the fiscal sanity that will allow us to treat medical care for all of us as a cultural priority.

Waiting is very complicated.  Given Anna’s age (and Simeon’s probable age), neither of the central characters in this scene would have been around to see how Jesus’s story worked itself out.  Neither would have seen Rome condemn him to death.  Neither would have witnessed the torture that killed him.  Before you leap to the resurrection, imagine what Anna or Simeon would have said if they HAD lived long enough to stand at the foot of the cross and watch.  What would they have said then about the consolation of Israel or the redemption of Jerusalem?

It’s worth asking.  Waiting is complicated.

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