Text: Luke 2:22-40
Jack McKinney and I had just completed a two-day journey to the region of Abkhazia while visiting our sister church in the Republic of Georgia. Malkhaz had wanted us to visit one of Peace Cathedral’s mission churches in this rural region located near the Black Sea. The trip was a rough six-hour ride from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia; but the greeting upon arrival from some of the members of the mission church made the long, rough trip worth it. Most of the afternoon we sat outside under a large tree drinking flavored water that was drawn from a well in the front yard. Actually, Jack was drinking the water. The flavor had such a strong sulfur smell that I couldn’t get it past my nose. Surprisingly, this would become a theme throughout our trip—Jack graciously drinking and eating things that I couldn’t get past my nose. That evening we had an extravagant feast that I can only imagine was given with great sacrifice from those who served us. We spent the night at the mission church that was the home of the family of the two brothers who were serving as pastors. The next morning Jack and I participated in serving communion at a special worship service in honor of our visit before splitting up to go visit the elderly in the community. After the visits we began our six-hour journey back to Tbilisi. On the way back to the capital city we made two stops: one to an old Soviet military base, which now serves as a refugee camp to refugees, and the other at the home of an elderly woman who, along with her sister, is credited for keeping the underground Christian church going in Georgia during the Soviet reign. It was at this last stop on our two-day journey to and from Abkhazia that I experienced one of the most profound moments of my life.
Before arriving at the elderly woman’s home, Malkhaz told us the story about how, at a time when Georgians didn’t have religious freedom, this woman and her sister had risked their very lives to keep the Christian faith alive through the underground church. She was now in her 90s, living alone, blind, and confined to her bed. When we arrived it was obvious in her expressions that she was grateful for the visit from Malkhaz. I don’t know all that Malkhaz said to her, but he introduced Jack and me, and I imagine told her some about our visit to Georgia. Jack and I mostly sat and listened as Malkhaz and the woman talked. As we were preparing to leave, the woman reached out her hands and said something. Malkhaz looked at me and said, “She wants to touch your face.” I leaned forward and placed her hands on my face and I placed my hands on her face. As she traced the outline of my eyes and nose and lips she spoke to Malkhaz. He turned to me and said, “She has asked if you will offer a blessing for her.” It was one of the most humbling moments of my life. Who was I to offer a blessing to this woman who had risked her life for the sake of her faith? I don’t remember exactly what I said, but in one of the most sacred and holy moments of my life I attempted to utter a blessing upon the woman. When I finished speaking, I turned to Malkhaz and asked if it would be appropriate for me to ask for a blessing. I didn’t’ understand a word that was spoken, but for the next several moments, with what felt like the hands of God placed upon my head, I could feel God’s blessing entering me through her words and touch. There is a picture hanging in my office that marks that moment. Some of you who have seen the picture have asked if it is Mother Teresa. Even in a photograph she has such presence. Her blessing that day was one of the most powerful moments in my life—for sure, one I will never forget. When I walked out of her door that day, I felt different.
It seems appropriate and somewhat ordained that the lectionary text for the first Sunday of the New Year is about blessing. In taking the baby Jesus to the temple to be blessed, Mary and Joseph were doing what any responsible church-going parent would have done in those days. According to the gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph took the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after his birth to complete Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth, and to perform the blessing of redemption of the firstborn, in obedience to the Law of Moses. It is in the Temple that they encountered both Simeon and Anna. According to the biblical account, Simeon, also known as Simeon the Righteous, Simeon the Elder, Simeon the God-Receiver, or Holy Simeon, is a “just and devout” man who had been visited by the Holy Spirit and told that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ. On taking Jesus into his arms he uttered the now famous prayer Nunc dimittis: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation…” Throughout the centuries, those words have inspired the arts—famous paintings and some of the most sacred music in church tradition.
Anna, or Anna the Prophetess, is mentioned only in the gospel of Luke. According to Luke, she was an aged Jewish prophetess who prophesied about Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. Anna’s life and background are obscure. From the three verses in Luke, we know the following about her: she was a prophetess, she was the daughter of Phanuel, she was a member of the tribe of Asher, she was widowed after seven years of marriage, and she was a devout Jew who regularly practiced prayer and fasting. What is certain is that Luke wants us to know that Anna is a very old woman.
These two characters, Simeon and Anna, greet Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus at the Temple and offer both the ritual blessings according to the Law of Moses and, what one can only sense to be a personal blessing. I can only imagine how humbled they felt as they held the baby Jesus in their arms and offered their words of blessing. Their feelings must have been akin to those we feel when, in worship, we dedicate a Pullen child or bless our youth in our Rite-13 ritual. On many of those occasions, an adult has come to me and said, “I wish my church would have had a blessing like that when I was 13.” I remember once after a ordination service, in which the entire congregation participated in the laying on of hands, I overheard an adult say, “I wish everyone could have a blessing like that.”
Blessing and being blessed is a powerful, transcending act. To be the one blessing can feel like a heavy responsibility. It can also be a humbling experience. In the case of Simeon and Anna, they have years of experience, and their reputations as devoutly religious people placed them in a position of authority to offer a blessing to the infant. Yet, both of these people acknowledge that they are meeting their messiah, and it must have taken courage for them to go beyond their own sense of unworthiness to offer Jesus, the chosen one, a blessing. Just as it can be a humbling experience to offer blessing, to be the one being blessed can also feel humbling. It is, by definition, a place of vulnerability and surrender to submit oneself to the blessing of another. But it can also be transformative, for many of the same reasons. In the course of receiving a blessing, we momentarily relinquish the control we so value in our lives, to be present to receiving God’s love and grace through another human being.
As we go into this New Year, we are reminded through the story of Simeon and Anna to do so with a sense of blessing and of being blessed. As I reflected this week on the act and power of blessing in my life, I wondered how our year, 2012, might be different if we intentionally choose to see and accept blessing. I also wondered how our year could be different if we intentionally choose to be and offer blessing to others.
We can choose now to bless the old year that we leave behind. Whether or not we understand it, or want to relive it, or even appreciate it, we can bless it. And we can choose to bless the New Year before us. If we choose blessing maybe we can surrender something important that will allow us to be like Simeon, a God-receiver, and receive ALL the blessings of the New Year ahead. In doing so, we too, will become strong, be filled with wisdom, and find favor with God.