Coming Home | GOING HOME AGAIN
Our series comes to a conclusion today as we celebrate the Lord’s Day during this Christmas season. We have come a long way. We began the series on December 3 with a reading from Isaiah, in which the people of Israel were feeling estranged from the Lord God. They confessed their sins, took responsibility for their transgressions, and begged the Lord to return to them and redeem them. They prayed, “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay and you are the potter; we are the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people” (Isaiah 64:8-9, NRSV).
Now, as we come to the end of the series, as well as the seasons of Advent and Christmas, the gospel writer Luke provides the other bookend, as Simeon, upon seeing Jesus as he is presented for his purification in the Temple, takes the child in his arms and proclaims, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for the revelation of the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32, NRSV).
Mary and Joseph are amazed by Simeon’s response to their son. Simeon offers a blessing to the family as he prophesies about the destiny of Jesus, saying that it is connected to the rising and the falling of many in Israel. In other words, Simeon connects the redemption of Israel to the person of Jesus the Christ. He sees in this child the hope of Israel and the salvation of all people, including the Gentiles. His birth initiates, as we talked about on Christmas morning, a turning of the whole world toward God’s kingdom.
Also present in the Temple is a woman named Anna. Women are far less represented in the Bible than men, especially women with names. So whenever a woman with a name is part of the story, it is important to pay attention.
Although the Gospel of Luke has many women characters, as well as many passages that deal with women, in a lot of examples Luke presents women in parallel with a story about men. For example, in chapter one, there is an annunciation to Zechariah followed by an annunciation to Mary. In chapter seven, Jesus cures the dying son of the Centurion, and then raises the deceased son of the widow of Nain. In chapter eighteen there is a persistent widow paired with a humble tax collector (see Bonnie Thurston, Women in the New Testament: Questions and Commentary. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 1998. 100-101). Sadly, although there are many stories featuring women and women’s concerns in Luke, often these women do not speak, and if they do, we are not privy to their actual words. Such is the case with Anna.
There is a sense in which Anna’s interaction with Jesus parallels that of Simeon. She, like Simeon, is a devout follower of Judaism. Luke names her as a prophet, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She is old and is a widow and, as such, has now committed her life to constant worship, fasting, and prayer in the Temple. And so, like Simeon, she is present when Mary and Joseph bring Jesus for his purification.
As with Simeon, Anna seems to have an immediate, visceral response to the child. She senses something in him, something that connects with her very soul. She responds by praising God. But she doesn’t just praise God. Luke says she also speaks about her experience to others, although he does not tell us what she said. He only describes her words as being offered to those who were looking for the redemption of Israel. In this way, Anna is the first evangelist in Luke. She is the first to go out and speak to others that the Messiah has been born!
It’s hard to know what it was that Simeon and Anna saw, or felt, or experienced, when they came into direct contact with Jesus on that day in the Temple. Whatever it was, it was life-changing. It caused Simeon to say he would now be able to die in peace. And it propelled Anna to speak about the hope for redemption she now knew as a result of meeting this child.
It may also be hard to know how to describe what it was that we saw, or felt, or experienced the first time we came face-to-face with our Savior. All we know is that it changed our lives. It helped us to be at peace. And hopefully, it has propelled us to speak about the hope for redemption we now know as a result of meeting Jesus.
Have we, like Simeon and Anna, seen in Jesus the hope of Israel and the salvation of all people, including the Gentiles? What does that look like? What does it feel like? How has it changed our lives? What have we done, and what will we do, in response to this gift of grace from God? How will we, like Anna, speak about this hope for redemption we have found in Christ to other people?
Jesus is going home now, to grow in wisdom and strength. The next time we see him will be at his baptism, which we celebrate next week.
Likewise, many of us have now returned to our homes after the holidays. We have moved back into the regular patterns and rhythms of our lives. But we have been changed by our encounter with Jesus over the past month. We are not the same people that we were on December 3. We, too, have grown in wisdom and strength.
As we move into the next season and our next series, we will join Anna in the work of evangelism: proclaiming to all the world that God sent Jesus into the world for the salvation of all. Let us give thanks to God for the showing forth of Christ in this world and for his showing forth in our own lives. And let us not leave our light to dwindle, but rather, let us, like Simeon and Anna, go forth to shine anew because the light of Christ has come into the world, and the darkness can never put it out.
Through the witness of the prophets Simeon and Anna, Luke tells us more about what the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, meant for the world and for all of us. Three nouns in particular summarize their prophecy. Simeon prophesies Jesus is destined for the “falling and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34). Anna evangelizes about him to “all who were looking for redemption” (Luke 2:38). Falling, rising, and redemption would be the notable “impact crater” of the coming of Messiah.
The Greek words used for these three terms carry a significance beyond the immediate context. All three nouns end in “-sis” in Greek, an ending which signals that what is at stake is not a once-for-all event, but an unfolding process. This is important because it means what was happening in the arrival of Jesus was intended simply to be the beginning that would lead to a much larger culmination. It also means that what was happening then can still be expected to be happening now, and we should be ready to look for signs of it around us. Finally, it means we can ally ourselves with these processes in our own lives, here and now, and so be part of the ongoing unfolding of God’s reign where we are.
“Falling” is “ptwsis” (w substitutes for the Greek letter Omega here). This word in Greek is most highly associated with downward displacement in rank, power, or status. Simeon speaks of “ptwsis” as the first of the processes unleashed by the coming of the Messiah. There is first a dethroning of the powers that be. Messiah’s arrival means all other powers are displaced. He and his way reign.
How do we ally ourselves with the Christ’s work of “ptwsis” rather than finding ourselves “victims” of it, as it were? Though John Wesley did not much like the works or the spirituality of the Western mystics, here I think Bernard of Clairvaux’s commentary on the Song of Solomon (of all things!) provides most helpful guidance. Bernard teaches there are two kinds of spiritual paths-- the path of ascent (via ascensus), and the path of abnegation (via negationis). The path of ascent is a way of seeking to pull oneself up by one’s spiritual bootstraps to attain to the knowledge of and unity with the Divine. This, Bernard says, looks like and perhaps even feels like a path of progress and exaltation. It is, instead, he warns, the surest path to destruction. The path of abnegation moves in exactly the opposite direction. Rather than self-exaltation, it seeks surrender and release to God at every point. It may look and feel like a continuous falling. It is, in fact, the means by which God lifts us and sanctifies us fully. We collaborate with Messiah’s work of the falling of many, then, not by causing the fall of others but by, as the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts,” would say, by embracing “the gift to come down where we ought to be.”
Rising is “anastasis,” the same word in Greek used for “resurrection” and, in some instances for “uprising” or “insurrection.” So it, like ptwsis with which it is here paired, has strong political implications. Some powers are taken down. Others are raised up, as if from the dead. The prophecy points to not only a dethroning of the powers that be, but the new throning of powers that had been long suppressed by the powers that be. Jesus was already participating and prompting anastasis as he proclaimed “good news to the poor,” healing the sick, raising the dead, and casting out demons among some of the neediest people and in much of the neediest and most culturally diverse (and oppressed) region of his homeland. Wendell Berry’s poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” points to other ways to “practice resurrection.” How are you seeing the process of resurrection, anastasis, in practice and in progress where you are? How are you encouraging others to join it? How will you encourage and point the way for folks where you are to ally themselves with Messiah’s work of anastasis in the coming year?
Finally, “redemption” in Greek is “lutrwsis,” the process of buying someone back, typically someone who had been taken into captivity, and so most often for the purpose of setting that captive person free. There is a strong association of this word with prisoners of war, slaves, and literal chains. Anna proclaimed the Messiah had indeed come, in the person of a child she had seen, to all who were seeking the process of the redemption, the release from captivity, of Jerusalem, a city which, in Christian usage, is defined not as much geographically and ethnically but theologically as the city (polis, organized dwelling place) of God and all of the people of God throughout the world. To ally ourselves with Messiah’s work of lutrwsis, then, is never limited to seeking the liberation of Christians from earthly persecution (though it certainly includes that!). Rather, it points to all forms of evangelization, such as Anna’s, and all forms of advocacy and care (acts of justice and compassion, in Methodist terms), that bear witness to God’s work of bringing deliverance to all who seek to be the people of God, but who are held captive by sin, death, fear, disease, and all forms of evil, injustice, and oppression. Messiah is come! And Messiah’s work of redemption continues to unfold in the world.