I remember a professor in one of my psychology classes distributing baby and childhood photos of Adolph Hitler and Albert Schweitzer. The teacher asked whether we could see in the photos of Hitler anything sinister, cruel, paranoid, and psychotic. He then asked if we could see in the photos of Schweitzer any early evidence for goodness, love, kindness, compassion, religious sensitivity, and generosity. We all agreed that we could see exactly those qualities which corresponded to each man in these photographs. The professor then told us that he had purposely mislabeled these pictures. The pictures we thought were of Hitler were actually of Schweitzer and those we thought were of Schweitzer were of Hitler. This was a humbling lesson for aspiring psychology students. In fact, I suggest it is a helpful lesson for all of us. What we look for and see is conditioned by what we expect to find and understand.
If we had been at the Temple that day, what would we have seen about Jesus that would have identified him as the long awaited Messiah, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world? There were no radiant angels, no adoring shepherds, no shining star, no mysterious wisemen from the East; just a peasant couple with their infant son who had journeyed to the Temple to carry out the ritual of purification for Mary as required by Jewish Law after the birth of her son. Indeed, there is no indication that anyone of importance, anyone with credentials, or anyone with authority saw anything promising or unique about this newly formed family. As far as the religious and political power structures of Judea were concerned, this peasant family was non descript – just one of the thousands of poor families of Palestine trying to get by. And this family must have indeed been poor for the law stipulated that the mother bring a lamb and a pigeon or dove for sacrifice, but provision was made for the very poor to substitute another pigeon or dove for the lamb. So, Mary, being poor, brought her two birds. When Mary and Joseph approached the priest with their sacrificial doves, perhaps some pity was shown to the couple and their baby, for here was another common mouth to feed and another meager life to be lived under the trying conditions of poverty and Roman occupation; but I doubt even this much notice or thought was given to this family as they went about the required rituals in Herod’s temple.
But Luke tells us that two people saw in the baby the Consolation and Redemption of Israel as well as Light for all the nations. Two people saw in Jesus the long awaited Messiah, but the irony was that the two who saw were no more impressive than the peasant couple with their peasant baby. An old man Simeon and an ancient woman Anna with no significance, credentials, or authority in the eyes of the Judean power structure saw what all the others could not see.
It is interesting to note that later Christians, with no evidence whatsoever, tried to confer upon Simeon impressive credentials. In fact. one Christian writing of the 2nd century A.D. even turns him into a high priest while other writings, again without a shred of evidence, maintain that he was the son of the greatest of the rabbis, Hillel, and father of the prominent religious leader Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder. Yet the Greek behind this passage presents Simeon as an unknown – a common man who was devoted to God and nothing more than that. And of course, that is Luke’s point. What more is needed than one who is upright and devout and who looks with longing hope for the salvation of the Lord? And Luke cannot resist a final irony: in this most holy place, this unknown man had what none of the impressive priests, religious teachers, and brilliant scribes had–he had the Spirit of the Lord. The Spirit of God was upon him, so he could see.
And what of Anna, a woman more than 100 yrs. of age? Twenty years ago, she could have been mentioned by Willard Scott on the “Today” show, but this old woman, widowed for 84 years, would have been ignored by the temple authorities. As a woman she would not have been allowed into the inner courts of the Temple. Neither would she have been allowed the privilege of an opinion on any religious question. Yet this ancient widow, devoted to prayer, fasting, and adoration of God and energized by expectation, recognized the Messiah.
What an unusual Gospel! What a strange twist Luke gives his story! The ones who recognize God in human flesh are an old man with no credentials and a hundred + year-old woman probably seen by those who even noticed her as a senile religious oddity. And if you had never read Luke’s Gospel before, you would already suspect that Jesus is not going to end up like any self-respecting God in human flesh should, at least according to conventional standards. And this is precisely what Luke wants us to think.
But there is more which Luke would have us realize, and that more comes in the words of Simeon. The old man first praises God for letting him witness the salvation of the world and allowing him to see what others had hoped and prayed for and had borne faithful witness to. But then Simeon turned to Mary and spoke the words Luke would have us hear: “Behold, he is set for the fall of many in Israel and for a sign to be contradicted. Indeed, a sword will pass through your own soul, so that the inmost thoughts of many may be revealed.” What do these words mean, and why did Simeon speak them to Mary? Let us take his words one phrase at a time.
A) “Behold, he is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel.” We have here a building stone image often used in religious writing–a stone on which people can stumble and fall or on which they can build a house. And whether they fall or rise is their choice, and the choice could not be neglected for the stone had been set firmly in their midst, and their choice would have far reaching implications.
B) “He is set for a sign to be contradicted.” Here Simeon moves from the image of a building stone to that of a sign–a sign stands for something and Jesus will stand for something–specifically he will point to the radical Kingdom of God, and those with loyalties other than that of God’s Kingdom will oppose him and dispute his words and deeds. He must be followed or opposed, but he cannot be ignored.
C) And then we have those words directed specifically to Mary: “A sword will pass through your soul.” These words are used elsewhere in Jewish writings to refer to a selective sword of judgment–a symbolic sword used for the purpose of discriminating between those of faith and commitment and those of misplaced loyalties and self-centered priorities. And Simeon says that sword will pass even through Mary. Years later Jesus himself will utter similar words:
“Do you think I have come to give peace on earth? I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matt. 10:34 39
And on another occasion, he states that his mother and brothers and sisters are those who do the will of God.
So, by this symbolic sword of judgment, Jesus distinguishes between his natural family of Mary and others and the family of those who do the will of God. And he states clearly that it is the latter family that matters ultimately. So, we learn that being a natural relative of Jesus (even being his own mother!) does not guarantee that one will stand among those favorably judged by God. Mary’s special anguish, as the sword of discriminatory judgment passed through her soul, was in recognizing that the claims of Jesus’ heavenly Parent outranked any human attachment between her and her son. She too must learn to say, “Nevertheless, your will be done.” She too must seek first the Kingdom of God.
D) And then with the last phrase of Simeon’s prophecy, the spotlight turns from Mary to us: “So that the inmost thoughts of many may be revealed.”
That same sword must also pass through us. In fact, it passes through our midst each time God in Christ through words and deeds or through a person in need or through an opportunity of service makes the divine presence known. And by our commitment to God’s Kingdom and will or by our lack of commitment, we classify ourselves as being on one side or on the other.
It strikes me that we church people often see ourselves as “kind of” distant relatives to Jesus; maybe not his mother or brothers and sisters, but perhaps his distant cousins. We’re kind of related to him–we kind of know him–we have a kind of familiarity with him–and we expect perhaps to get by on all these “kind ofs.” Years ago when Dolly Parton built Dollywood, she promised to give a job to any and all of her relatives, regardless of how distantly they were related to the superstar. They were guaranteed a job in the kingdom of Dollywood. Sometimes I think those of us in the church think we too are guaranteed a place in the Great Dollywood in Sky simply because we are “kind of “ related to Jesus.
But Luke would not have us misled. If Jesus’ own mother could not claim special treatment and was not exempt from the radical call to commitment, then neither are we. There is no substitute for committed discipleship – no substitute whatsoever. The sword will pass through our midst, and by our responses we will classify ourselves, one way or the other.
Gracious God, we have sought you in high and holy places; we are ill prepared to acknowledge your presence among the lowly and poor. We believe you are profound, but we overlook your obvious truths. We are anxious about the unknown, but we hardly consider the realities immediately in front of us. Turn us, Incarnate God, by the simple wonders of your love, to a rebirth of faith, hope, and joy. Teach us that your solidarity with all humanity is for our salvation, our happiness, our sense of belonging. We need not rely on shaky foundations of pretense and pride. We need not divide the world into holy and profane, sacred and common, redeemable and damned. We need not harbor private fears that we are not good enough, wise enough, important enough to warrant your eternal affirmation of our worth. In Christ, you have come to earth in a humble home. You have sweated in life’s labor. You have wept over the suffering of loved ones. You have struggled with temptation. You have agonized over the consequences of righteous living. And in Christ you have died a most common, even contemptible death. By your deep and abiding identification with us, you have made all life sacred, all circumstances teeming with holy potential, and all people capable of sacramental living.
Unveil for us the height and depth, the breadth and far reaching scope of your love for all of us that we may never look upon one of your children again without a reverence for your grace for each of us through Christ our Lord.
As part of that awareness, we pray for all those who need your healing, liberating, redeeming, loving hand and presence. Bless them and us with an ever increasing understanding of your solidarity with each and all and how holy your presence and love can make our common lives through Christ our Lord, Amen.
The Baby Jesus could have been recognized by many people that day in the Temple. Anyone could have received the grace of God–high or low–rich or poor–old or young–wise or simple. Anyone could have seen in the infant the promises of God made flesh and blood.
So accessible–so available–so much in reach was God Incarnate.
And today the movement of God toward us in the same. In the Bread and the Wine, we can discover the Christ. We can touch the hem of the garment. We can hold eternity in the palms of our hands if we will recognize Christ in our midst and receive the grace which undergirds every breath we take.
Two thousand years ago in that ancient temple, the grace of God was accessible to all. But only two recognized–only those two could and would see what was before them. Today that grace is available to all of us. How many of us will recognize the Presence of God? How many will see in the Bread and Wine the love of God poured out for the world and all therein?
If we have beheld the glory of God’s Son, like Simeon and Anna, we will see with spiritually acute vision. We will praise God with thankful hearts. And we will offer ourselves on the altar of God’s holy will to share the story, the love, and the joy of that amazing grace by which we and the world are fed.
Depart now in the fellowship of the Spirit. As the sword of discrimination passes through your soul this week, may you have the desire and courage to classify yourself among the faithful people of God by whose grace we are all kept in the arms of love. Amen.