Text: Luke 2:22-40
Can you imagine? I bet you’ve never seen a baby dedication go quite like that. It’s been 40 days since Jesus was born. The shepherds are back with their flocks. The taxes have been settled. I suspect Mary and Joseph were hoping for a quiet, normal visit to the temple in Jerusalem to offer their sacrifice, pray and worship together—just as any new family would. They plan to present their son Jesus to the priest on duty, but right before Nancy can take the new baby and show him off to the gathered congregation, this fella Simeon bounds up the steps of the temple, dashes through the courtyard and snatches up the baby, proclaiming “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the presence of all peoples.” As if that wasn’t enough, a seasoned prophet (depending on your interpretation of the ancient text, she was either 84-years-old, or had lived as a widow for 84 years after her husband died) comes up behind them and begins to echo Simeon’s proclamation, drawing other passersby in to tell them about the great things this baby is sure to do.
Can you imagine? What a turn for your baby dedication to take. Poor Joseph and Mary. That was my first thought in reading through this text. Then I began to think of some of the older, wiser people in my life and the way they are quick to dote on new born babies and offer words of encouragement for the youth and children among us, and this scene became a little easier for me to visualize. Just a little.
As I have meditated on this passage, my thoughts have been drawn to Simeon and Anna, and the faith that would move two tireless laborers for God’s Commonwealth to look on a month-old baby, born into poverty, and say with confidence “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the presence of all peoples.” The blessing of Simeon and Anna is the final of four “songs” that appear in Luke’s birth narrative—following verses of blessing by Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, the Magnificat of Mary, and a lengthy hymn of blessing uttered by Zechariah following the birth of Jesus’ cousin, John. All four of the songs point to Jesus and the special way God is at work in his life, but each has its own context. The blessing of Simeon and Anna comes 40 days after Jesus’ birth, when Jewish customs of the time as prescribed by Leviticus, called for a new mother to bring an offering to the temple following a period of waiting—40 days after the birth of a son, or 80 days after the birth of a daughter.
The proper offering was a young lamb and a turtledove. Sheep aren’t cheap, however, and many of the poorest Jews of the time couldn’t have afforded such an offering. Jesus’ family, Luke makes it very clear, fit into this class. They simply were not the type of family who would be throwing a million-shekel wedding for a beloved child, or buying a new embroidered gown especially for Jesus’ first presentation at the temple. The magi with their gifts of gold and frankincense don’t make an appearance in Luke’s gospel. Fortunately, a provision was made in the law for those who could not afford to offer a lamb and a turtledove to offer two turtledoves instead. This is the offering Mary brings to the temple. This is the child, born into poverty, who elicits blessing from the justice worker and the prophet.
Where did they develop a faith like this? That is what draws my attention to Simeon and Anna. Our text describes Simeon as “righteous and devout,” one who had spent his life “eagerly anticipating the restoration of Israel.” Likewise, Anna had spent the better part of a century at the temple, praying, fasting and calling the people to live into the justice and love that characterize the reign of God among us, even as a distant emperor and a self-appointed king exercised authority over her country. What is it like to commit your life to ushering in God’s reign, and then to simply step back, to take a bow and pass the baton on to another unlikely, unqualified, unexpected—in this case, still unweaned—prophet-to-be, and to go in peace, trusting that God would be able to work things out for the best?
The faith of Anna and Simeon is the type that motivates activists to commit their time and energy to striving to restore dignity and hope to communities who have been disempowered, even if they may not live to see the fruits of their labor. It is the confidence that allows teachers to pour themselves out for their students, knowing that at the end of the year, they will have to let go and entrust their pupils to someone else as the children move on to the next step in their own journeys.
This ability to give up control over the outcome of our work, while not giving up on the work itself, is a gift—and an act of trust that requires great faith. Where do the Simeons and Annas among us draw this courage from, and how can we learn from their experiences?
The first thing that stands out in our text today is that Simeon and Anna were both active participants in their faith communities. They are engaged in regular acts of prayer, fasting and worship. The blessing they offer to Jesus takes place in the midst of the ordinary activities of life. Babies are born. Offerings are prepared. Prayers are said, and work continues. It is the basic stuff of life. What makes Anna and Simeon stand out in the midst of this is that they are paying attention. The wisdom that comes from years of journeying at home and paying attention gives them eyes that see a little more clearly what God is up to, but this isn’t an accident. It is a practice.
Secondly, Anna and Simeon are faithful, but they do not allow themselves to be defined by the status quo or bound by social expectations. Anna, one of the last prophets named in our sacred scriptures, has lived her life as an independent woman in an intensely patriarchal age. Her husband died after seven years of marriage. Most women at that time would have likely tried to re-marry, as independent woman didn’t have the privileges and freedoms typically required to conduct business and care for themselves in the ancient world. Anna defies the expectations, and commits herself to holy work—holding constant vigil in the temple courts, giving witness to the fact that all is not as God intends, that there is work yet to do before justice and peace truly flow through the city, and throughout the Earth.
Finally, like all great prophets, Simeon and Anna realize their work is not centered around themselves. God invites us to participate in bringing healing, hope and wholeness to the world, but the work is not entirely dependent on any one of us. All of our efforts are valuable, but none of our labor is indispensable. Last week Pope Francis gave an annual Christmas address to the Vatican Curia, top officials in the Roman Catholic Church. The address included a reading of 15 ailments the pope believes are hindering the work of the church, and I found it interesting to read that the first item on the pope’s list was thinking of our own work as indispensable. This is a trap I find myself falling into more often than I’d like to admit, and I fear it is something my fellow activists and advocates for justice are particularly susceptible to. As our eyes grow more attuned to the brokenness and suffering that is everywhere among us in the world, there is a danger of slipping into cynicism and giving up the fight, or on the other end, in burning out in a blazing mix of anger at injustice and sorrow for the suffering of our brothers and sisters.
Anna and Simeon demonstrate well for us the gift of being able to let go of the need to control the outcome of our work for peace and justice, and to simply do the work—trusting that God is laboring alongside us and will see the effort through.
This does not mean that we stop marching for justice, or allow the light of compassion to dim. I have no doubt that even after their encounter with Jesus’ at the temple, Simeon and Anna continued their labors, as they had been doing, with an even greater confidence that God was using their effort to bring redemption and healing to their world. Giving up the need to control the outcome of our efforts means that we continue to march for justice, to speak truth to power, to feed the hungry and visit the lonely, whether we work alone, or whether we are joined by hundreds of thousands all struck by the same vision of how God longs for our world to be.
May we all find the courage to continue living into God’s reign of peace on earth, and goodwill to all, and one day nurture the faith to say “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.”