Two days after Christmas? Usually the proverbial “low” Sunday. But this year? Who knows? Church happens, regardless. These are the days I remind myself that I do what I do for God, as a humble but determined offering of myself to God. A pretty Christmasy way of thinking of your life, right?
Isaiah 61:10-62:3. Since Mary knew Scripture well, from memory, not from personally owned scrolls, did she ever sing or ponder the words to this text in the days after Jesus’ birth? Rejoicing, the crown of beauty, the new name! I love taking this angle with Scripture: not merely asking about the text in itself, but how would someone – Mary, or Barnabas, or St. Francis – have heard such a text?
Galatians 4:4-7. Paul, not overly attentive to Christmas, here touches on the birth of Christ. Notice his emphases: the “fulness of time,” as if the right time, the overflow of time, the bursting forth of so much need, finally issued in the moment of all moments. Christ was born, not so we could exchange presents and have a frothy holiday, but “to redeem those under the law,” and so we might all “receive adoption.” Fascinating: Jesus, of a natural birth, but then not entirely, and requiring a sort of adoption by Joseph, being born with the ultimate impact that we, centuries later and on the other side of the world, would be adopted into his family.
And, that cry of the Spirit in the heart, reminding us of Paul’s startling and hopeful words in Romans 8, that our sighs are God’s Spirit actually praying in us! And our cry, the one Jesus invites us to join him in uttering, is Abba, a surprisingly personal and intimate address to the God of the universe, omnipotent, ineffable, infinite. Did Mary hold Jesus near Joseph and whisper, Abba? Could Jesus’ first word as a tiny one have been Abba as he peered up at Joseph? Did he learn from that tenderness what it was to call God Abba?
Luke 2:22-40. Paul’s thought that Jesus came to redeem those under the law seems contradicted by Jesus’ behavior (well, his parents’ in this case) – of going to the temple to fulfill the law. But the need for redemption from being ‘under’ the law is different from the law not mattering. Jesus fulfilled the law, and (if Matthew 5 is any indication) actually heightened its claims on us. It’s the bondage, or the confused wielding of the law as a weapon to ostracize others that needs serious redemption.
What lucky turtledoves, those sacrificed for the baby Jesus. Dare we sing “Two turtledoves, and a partridge in a pear tree”? Simeon and Anna are the perfect characters for a Sunday like this. Many will have visited elderly kin, or our people are those elderly kin. In my Birth book, I wrote this about Simeon and his “prophecy” (and our prophecies):
And then, being diligent in faith, Mary and Joseph delivered their son to the priest for circumcision, which for them was a non-negotiable act of obedience and devotion to God. I wonder if Mary felt her first pangs of separation when she handed her infant son over to a priest she’d never met, and if she shivered a bit when she heard his outcry when the knife cut into his flawless flesh.
Seemingly by chance, Mary and Joseph bumped into an old man named Simeon, and then a woman named Anna who had been a widow for decades (Luke 2:25-38). The aged inevitably turn and gaze at an infant, as if the chances to glimpse such precious beauty are numbered – as George Eliot noted when telling us about the reclusive miser, Silas Marner, discovering a little girl in his home after losing all his gold: “We older human beings feel a certain awe in the presence of a little child, such as we feel before some quiet majesty or beauty in earth or sky.” Do mothers today encounter various older people who figure in profound and surprising ways in the unfolding drama of their children’s lives? Does God send such people into our orbit to shape the puzzled parents’ new world?
Simeon was “upright and devout.” Like many, he was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Some mystical disclosure had come to this man – that he would not die before seeing the Messiah. Simeon took the child. Mary would forever be handing her child over to the hopes of others. His prayer over the child must have struck Mary and Joseph dumb. “Now let your servant depart in peace,” for this Messiah (even in infancy) had come, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for Israel.” We often speak hyperbolically of a newborn, but this is over the top, outrageous, either divinely inspired or sheer craziness. Such a lovely hope though, that because of this child we might depart in peace. No wonder monks and nuns chant these words each night.
Would that Simeon had stopped right there. But then, in somber tones, he spoke directly to Mary: “Behold, he is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel… A sword will pass through your own soul.” These densely framed words require much thought; we can be sure Mary “pondered” them. Her little boy’s destiny involves the “fall and rise” of God’s people. The order should puzzle us. We speak of the “rise and fall” of, let’s say, the Roman Empire, a British dynasty, or a famous politician. With Jesus, everything gets turned upside down. With Jesus, you fall before you rise, you get emptied of your own goodness before you are filled with the mercy, you lose your life to gain your life – and the same happens with God’s church, rising like a phoenix only after suffering the worst persecution.
The pattern will be Jesus’ own. He will fall, flagellated by the soldiers, then beneath his own cross, and finally crushed by death itself, only then to rise, and to reign. This fall will indeed pierce Mary’s heart. Simeon was right: she would barely be able to stand at the foot of the cross, trying to avert her gaze from the sight of the lifeblood she had given him draining out of his precious, pure body. But she had to watch, and love, and grieve. Whose heart was more crushed than hers? Who felt the piercing of the nails and the spear more than his mother? Who, even after his resurrection and ascension, felt the pangs of missing him more than his holy mother?
Simeon’s prophecy may prompt us to consider all those prophecies, most of them surely unintended, uttered over our children. Sizing up mom and dad, the doctor says He’ll be a tall one! Or as a premie beats the odds, the nurse says She’s a fighter! Or the too-young mother in labor and delivery, with no family hovering nearby, causing the obstetrician to hang her head: That one is already behind the eight ball. St. Dominic’s mother Juana travelled to Silos in Castile while she was still pregnant. In the sanctuary there she had a vision: a little dog in her womb, with a blazing torch in his mouth, setting the world on fire. Rebekah’s twins writhed in her womb, a foreshadowing of the vicious sibling rivalry that was to come (Gen. 25:23).
Were there prophecies you’ve overheard about yourself? I have vague recollections of my parents declaring that when my older sister was born, they had really wanted a boy. So I was their boy! And she was not… Some prophecies are cute, but loaded. We got Duke bibs and socks for our wee ones – so did they feel they failed to fulfill their promise when they didn’t go there? Some prophetic messages that impact our children are entirely unnoticed and unspoken. Like parental anxiety – over what to do with a little one, or over how terribly scary the world is out there.
A parent’s own childhood can function as a prophecy for the new child just born. In Parenting from the Inside Out, Daniel Siegal and Mary Hartzell demonstrate how our brains are wired so that when we parent, we quite naturally recreate the emotional interactions and responses experienced when we were little. You’re weighed down by unacknowledged emotional baggage. Your child triggers a response in you that’s way more about that hidden baggage than the present situation – and then everybody winds up confused, upset, and overwhelmed. Worst of all, your child then grows up and repeats the pattern with his own child.
Images from Sassoferrato, Giotto, Rembrandt.