Before they were written down, the Gospels would have been transmitted by word of mouth. Stories of Jesus to be told and re-told. They weren’t biographies as such, they weren’t meant to convey every last detail of Jesus’ life. But composed in such a way as to tell people the essential elements of the Good News in the way that the authors intended.
It means we do get gaps. After the nativity there is very little about the childhood and nothing at all about the young adulthood of Jesus. We almost go straight from the manger to his public ministry, leaving out the intervening decades. We don’t hear about the JoJingles class that he went to in his pre-school years. Or how many badges Jesus got in Cubs and Scouts. So, clearly when we do get a snippet, then it’s there for a good reason and important for our understanding.
Today’s reading about the Presentation of Christ and Simeon and Anna is one such moment. Our author is Luke, the master storyteller. Last time I was here we looked at another of Luke’s stories – the passage in Acts about Paul and Silas and the earthquake in the jail.
We’re still very early in Luke’s Gospel and he’s keen to set his stall out. One message is that Jesus and his family were observant Jews. Jesus was circumcised and formally named at the appropriate time and 40 days after the birth it’s now time for Mary to observe the purity laws related to childbirth (Leviticus 12:6-8).
But Luke is also telling us that the family are poor. If they’d been better off, the offering would have been a lamb instead of two birds (Leviticus 12:6-8). Jesus isn’t just sympathetic to the poor. He is poor. It’s not just a cause that he champions. He himself is from those same economic margins.
Looking to the future
Luke doesn’t dwell on the point though. He quickly introduces Simeon and then Anna. He introduces song and passion and expectancy. So far in the Gospel, we’ve been focussed on the nativity but now we look forward to the future – to what Jesus will do in the years to come when he grows up.
And Luke does it via another of his literary devices. Luke wants to make sure that we know that the Gospel is for men and women alike. One commentator counted 27 times in Luke’s Gospel where he focuses on both a man and a woman to make a point.
For instance, in the birth stories, the angel Gabriel visits both Zechariah and Mary; two songs are sung – one by Zechariah, the other by Mary; amongst the parables, a male shepherd loses a sheep and a woman loses a coin; a farmer plants a mustard seed and a woman kneads yeast into her bread dough.
And here we have two witnesses in the Temple. Male and female. Simeon and Anna testifying to God’s redemptive plan fulfilled in Jesus. We don’t know exactly what Anna said but, for those with a Book of Common Prayer background, we have the Nunc Dimittis from Simeon: “Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord.” Simeon had been waiting a lifetime for this.
We’re told that he was waiting for the ‘consolation of Israel’. Waiting for comfort in the wake of loss or disappointment. There’s an added poignancy here in that at the time that Luke finally wrote these stories down, for those reading the Gospel rather than listening to a tale being told, the Temple in Jerusalem, where all this was set, had been razed to the ground, destroyed by the Romans.
And for us, we’ve had coming up to three years of Covid now, there’s the war in Ukraine, rising prices and seemingly strikes everywhere. There doesn’t appear to be a quick resolution to any of these things. The New York Times describes it as a ‘new cycle of collective dismay’. Collective dismay.
So, what do Simeon and Anna have to say to us in our current context? What do we know of them?
Righteous and devout
Well, Simeon was much like every single one of all you good people here. He was righteous and he was devout… and Anna is named as a prophet – someone unafraid to speak out and declare the word of the Lord. I imagine there’s a few of you unafraid to speak out as well.
We’re also told that they’re both at the older end of the spectrum… Simeon knew that his time was nearly up and Anna was 84. I hesitate to draw any parallels with your good selves on that point – but if the cap fits… Both of them are worthy of admiration and above approach but they couldn’t lengthen their own days. Both are aware of their frailty. Which is when Christ shows up.
I think many of us have had to get to grips with our own lack of control over events in the past few years. We’ve almost said goodbye to well-ordered, predictable lives. Perhaps it’s times like this when Christ shows up for us too…
Luke says that Simeon is someone ‘waiting’ for the consolation of Israel. The word ‘waiting’ is better translated as ‘eagerly welcoming in’. That should transform the concept of waiting from one of endurance, of toughing it out, to one of active anticipation.
Similarly, Anna had made her home in God’s presence. The grief of a young widow had become a life-long prayer. Waiting for the Lord became a daily practice.
How often do we wait with irritation and impatience? Of holding-on by our fingertips until we get through something. What if our mindset was more of active anticipation – about being ‘ready to receive’ rather than ‘eager to escape’?
Even Simeon’s name comes from a word which can mean ‘to hear intelligently or obediently’. Not listen but hear. Do we hear intelligently? Or is it more likely to be angrily, or fearfully or half-heartedly? Simeon is portrayed as deliberately hearing out for God’s Spirit. It rested on him, it showed him things, it moved him. It enabled him to discern the leading of God and to act on what he heard.
The outcome is this tender scene. The elderly Simeon enters the Temple and finds Mary, Joseph and their baby. He picks up Jesus (the only person in the Bible who we’re explicitly told held the child in his arms). And we can imagine the old man gazing into the brand-new eyes of the Ancient of Days. ‘God with us’ became ‘God with me’. What a wonderful moment that must have been.
Nothing outwardly had changed yet Simeon told God that he could now die in peace. His soul was at rest. He knew now that the consolation of Israel was not an event but a person. A person in the form of a small, vulnerable baby. Sometimes our comfort can come in the most unexpected of packages.
Point of praise
Anna responded in much the same way. Jesus’ existence was the only evidence she needed to recognize God’s redemptive hand. Christ, as a baby who couldn’t yet walk or talk, became the focal point of her praise.
Particularly in times like this we can be very specific in our prayers and when we don’t quite get the response that we’re looking for, we might despair. Christ arrives in our distress, wordlessly as a baby, bundled in a form we didn’t see coming.
I’m not sure of the exact situation in this church here, but I understand you’re thinking about how your Circuit will look in the future. The numbers in my home church are nowhere near what they were pre-lockdown. There are fewer people to lead and take responsibility. Fewer volunteering even to be on rotas to clean the church or make the coffee.
We have to learn to be present in our smallness. To be ready to receive and embrace vulnerability. With some of the old trappings stripped away, Christ will make himself known in unforeseen ways thanks to the very limitations we’re looking to overcome. A baby is small but it’s precious and wonderful too.
Anna makes a point of talking about Jesus to all waiting for redemption. To all waiting for rescue, all waiting for wrongs to be made right. Jesus wasn’t a secret revelation to be kept to herself any more than he should be kept to the confines of these pews. The Gospel multiplies itself to feed the hungry crowds with more left to spare. God’s comfort, God’s consolation, reaches ever outward.
Anna didn’t wait to see how Christ’s life would unfold before spreading the word. She didn’t need to see how things would turn out. The sharing itself expanded her own joy, her own praise. What’s stopping you and me doing the same? Are we still waiting for something more?
You and I, we’re both Anna and Anna’s audience. We’re all looking for rescue in some way, for suffering to be over. Anna joyfully points us all to the Christ child – he is our comfort, our consolation.
But the passage also shows us the wide variety of voices that God uses in proclaiming the Gospel message. Women and men, new-borns and elders. The poor and the expectant. Every single one of us can be used to share with others, the consolation and comfort that is Jesus Christ.
So, I pray that the Spirit will help us, like Simeon, to actively anticipate and intelligently hear what the Father has to say to us and that – like Anna – he will use us to joyfully bring comfort and light and consolation to others.
Lord, like Simeon and Anna, give us the eyes of faith,
to see your presence in the world.
Where fear closes our eyes, help us;
and where tears blind us, heal us.
Where busyness keeps us from noticing, slow us.
Where pride gets in the way, release us.
Set us free to see your love at work in the world. Amen
- Bailey, K. (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes.
- Dunn, J. (2013). The Oral Gospel Tradition.