Archive for December, 2014

“The Cradle and the Bell” (Sermon, December 28th)

Luke 2:22-40

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 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 turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

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. 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;
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.’

33 And 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.’

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 for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At 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.

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

Welcome to the first Sunday after Christmas.

I don’t know about you, but there are still signs of Christmas chaos all over my house. Of course us Anglicans can keep Christmas going for just a little longer – say, another week. Before we know it, Jesus will be all grown up in the story, a little child no longer.

It therefore seems quite magical to have a baptism at this time of year, and today’s Gospel reading is the perfect story for one.

I call it “the Cradle and the Bell.”

Mary and Joseph, the couple too poor to afford the lamb that the Book of Leviticus tells us would be appropriate for the ceremony they are about to undergo, bring their substitute pigeons into the Temple.

Let’s take a moment to imagine how they must have felt. Imagine two desperately poor kids (as they probably were) from the two-thirds world, maybe a slum in India or a refugee camp in Africa, walking into St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The Temple was the seat of Judaism, shining like a diamond in Jerusalem, God’s jewellery box. And not only that, but just as crowded and likely a lot noisier. Vendors and money-changers, folks waiting in line with their own prayer requests and firstborn babies, priests and Levites running back and forth. I imagine it was scary – maybe even a bit traumatizing.

And then, behind them, a voice, and arms reach out and take their baby. The paintings always make this story look sweet and tender but can you imagine how weird it would be to have a complete stranger just walk up and grab your baby right out of your arms?

We’re told it was an irresistible urge. Simeon was led into the Temple by the Holy Spirit. I noticed when I re-read this story that I have tended to combine or conflate characters and events in it. For example, in paintings and in our imaginations, often it is assumed that both Simeon and Anna are old and living in the Temple. But in this story only Anna is explicitly named as either of those things. Far less is said about Simeon – only that he was “righteous and devout” and “looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” We assume he was old because when he sees Jesus he knows he has been given permission to die…but the story doesn’t actually tell us his age. He is only a man to whom a promise has been made.

He reaches out, guided by the Holy Spirit, and takes the baby – and in so doing becomes a Cradle for the infinite. The child, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, casts his line and draws in this man from outside into the courts of the Temple. We don’t get to hear what Simeon was doing before that. I’m quite curious about it. Did he get up in the middle of something and walk away, like disciples will later walk away from their boats? What happened after this incident? Did he drop dead right there in the Temple, or did he go home and wait? We don’t get to see any of that: only the child in his arms, maybe looking at him with that beautifully studious look that infants have from time to time. The Holy Spirit reached out and drew Simeon in. This is what she does.

Shortly after, we meet Anna, a prophet, who the Greek text either says is eighty-four or has been a widow for eighty-four years! Either way, Anna has, gently speaking, taken more than a few turns around the planet. But she is not a sweet and quiet elderly lady meekly going about her duties. Like most of the elderly church ladies I’ve met, she’s a powerhouse, very active in her faith community. Some ancient documents suggest there may have been a special ceremonial role for widows in the Temple. Whoever she was, she is about her business on that day, as she had been for many years before that. When she tells other people about the child, the prophet Anna becomes a Bell, tolling the story of love and redemption that was promised by other prophets years ago to the people of Israel.

Interestingly, while the male Simeon’s story has a deeply personal and emotional angle, Anna’s is all about action, voice, and community. This is different from what we might see in a contemporary Hollywood story, where emotion is commonly shown as the domain of women while men take initiative and action. If we consider the lack of clarity around Simeon’s age, we could also say this is an inversion of a common view of age: the introspective Simeon versus the engaged and vocal Anna. This reversal of how things so often are – with men as bells and women as cradles – only highlights Luke’s preoccupation with flipping things on end. For Luke, the unexpected is how God chooses to express Godself. The point, here, is not only reversal, but diversity. Jesus is recognized by both Simeon and Anna, and nurtured and proclaimed by both. I feel that Luke’s insistence that we turn our focus to the unexpected, the losers, the nobodies, may for our purposes be less about insisting one is better and more about lifting up stifled voices to be on the same level as privileged voices. We need both. We need prophetic nobodies, like John the Baptizer, and deferent somebodies, like the centurion who begs Jesus to heal his slave, to fill out the kingdom of God.

We need cradles and bells for the kingdom of God.

It follows that we would need cradles and bells for baptism.

It’s not just about being a model for this precious child of God. We do have to take seriously the vows we will make to do all in our power to support this person in her life in Christ. But too often, especially when the candidate is a child, we shift our attention to what we are to do and be for her. There’s nothing wrong with this impulse, but we need to remember that it is not merely us who are here preparing some empty vessel to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Rather, we are called here, out of wherever we came from – waiting at home or in constant prayer and fasting – to witness to a child who has been called by God right here, right now. This is holy work, but not because we are holy. It is holy work because we are being called to be cradles and bells for this child. Remember: before she could speak, God called her. She has a ministry right now, and she’s doing it right now, giving us hope and joy merely by her presence. She is the actor in a drama – which we stage in miniature – that was written before the world began. With this water, we baptize her into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: a deep, cellular, universal truth. A mentor at school insisted once that when we hear the sound of the water at a baptism, it’s rarely as dramatic as it should be! So imagine a deluge. Imagine the rainstorm of the century. This child is going to pass through, and we need to accept that in that symbolic death she does not belong to us, but to God…and in this symbolic resurrection, she belongs to us more deeply than she belongs to her own flesh and blood, because she belongs to the Body of Christ in the world.

She has a mission and she is enacting it right now before us all, before she can even speak. If we accept that this happened for Jesus and we proclaim ourselves as the Body of Christ, we therefore rejoice that it is happening for this child as well, right here, right now. We are witnessing God’s glory – directly.

Right now, our mission, like Simeon and Anna, is to rejoice, praise God, give thanks, and proclaim our hope.

Remember: the Holy Spirit is capricious. We cannot know what She has in store for this newest minister in Christ’s Body.

Alleluia and praise God for the beautiful unknown.