I have often thought how nice it would be, how much more inclusive we would be, if some year we cast Anna and Simeon in the Christmas pageant along with all the children. Simeon and Anna remind us, with the kind of wisdom and eloquence that come with age, that even though the focus of Christmas is a child, Christmas is not only for children.
For after choruses of angels have lit up the night sky, and shepherds have scurried across fields of promise to see this thing that has happened, the magi have arrived bearing gifts from the nations, these senior adults enter the story when life is getting back to normal for the holy family. From the posture of long years waiting, they reveal to us how large and awesome this tiny baby really is.
Luke presents this chapter of the infancy narrative in the whispers and hushed tones of people who know how to make room for a baby, and of those who understand that their own future is somehow embraced by the child they behold. “Long ago,” the Letter to the Hebrews begins, “God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son.” Somehow Simeon and Anna seem to know instinctively that the presentation of this baby in the Temple is God speaking. This child is the very Word of God whose tiny hands hold out salvation for the world.
In the midst of the deep darkness of their world, how did they recognize the infant light of baby Jesus? All that the gospel writer Luke infers is that from the wisdom gained with age and regular worship and faithful waiting, they knew.
Thus old Simeon and Anna show us how to receive this gift, for they had waited for God to speak anew to a world not unlike our world. Theirs were fearful and difficult times, with the world at war, and a homeland under military occupation. They knew rigid class distinctions, prejudice against races and religions, a time of unbearable cruelty and terror. They, no doubt, had seen hopes dashed and dreams lost for individuals and for the whole people of ancient Israel.
Nonetheless, they had not lost their hope or faith in God because from their Temple lessons they also knew their history. They remembered that baby Moses was rescued into Pharaoh’s household from a dripping basket and grew up to lead their forebears from slavery in Egypt through parted seas of freedom. They knew that great King David was the youngest son who almost escaped notice because he was out shepherding sheep when Samuel came looking for new leadership. They could quote from memory the hopeful cries of prophets to their ancestors, displaced and brutalized by exile, which kept them believing that God was creating new heavens and a new earth.
Because they had heard how God had spoken before, they worshipped day-by-day expecting God to speak, to bring order to the chaos of their world and to create something new again. There is no explaining how they knew their Savior when they looked into the face of week-old Jesus save for the fact that they remembered their history.
As God has spoken in the past, so God speaks still, Anna and Simeon remind us. God stretches our imaginations to receive Christ’s coming not just with grand Advent expectations and joyful Christmas celebrations, but also by approaching us in the whispers and hushed tones of everyday life. During the hurried and frenzied season of Advent, God speaks to us through prophetic visions for a world at peace. At Christmas God speaks to us through Joseph who believed his dreams called forth trust beyond his understanding, and through Mary who invites us to ponder these things in our hearts.
And into this New Year God will speak to us again and again through the grown up Jesus who will call us to live beyond the boundaries of our comfort, inviting others to share in the gospel and ministering among those in need. God will speak to us through baptism reminding us of our welcome into the household of God, and through regular celebration of communion that we may be nurtured for the life of faith and sacrifice. In the daily rounds of religious practice, God will speak to us through companions on the journey of faith as God must have spoken to Anna through Simeon’s righteous devotion, and to Simeon through Anna’s prophecy, fasting and prayer. It was their time in the Temple, it seems, which prepared them to see in Jesus so much more than a baby.
God has spoken to us by a Child, and God continues to speak to us through Christ’s presence in our everyday, very human reality. With careful attention to regular worship, prayer and hopeful expectation we, like Anna and Simeon, might be ready to receive the gift of salvation.
In the coming days we will begin the cleanup after Christmas both at our churches as well as in our homes. The dried greens will be thrown out and the Advent wreath put away. We’ll take our Christmas trees to be recycled into mulch, and pack up the lights and ornaments, the manger scene, and all the Christmas stuff for another year.
But in these early days after the birth of Christ we would do well to keep Simeon and Anna in mind. They did not count on special services with candlelight and favorite hymns to make their spirits soar on the wings of hope and faith. They simply kept Sabbath through the years and prayed every day with the expectation that God who had spoken so many times before would speak again in newness to the world in desperate need of salvation.
Agnes W. Norfleet is pastor of Shandon Church in Columbia, S. C., and is a member of the Board of Directors of The Presbyterian Outlook Foundation.