So is your family into precision opening?
– Sliding the ribbon off and rolling it up carefully, slicing the tape with a thumbnail, folding pretty paper to use again.
Or are you the free-for-all shred-it people?
– Everybody gets their stack and tears into everything and shreds of paper go flying and are still being unearthed from cushions and carpets on this, the 7th day of Christmas.
And what about your ‘tweener week? This Week In Between Christmas and New Year’s Day? Whatcha doin’?
– ‘We’re cozying up to close out the year. Books, a fire in the fireplace, not leaving the house.’
– ‘Football, games, conversations. I’m running out of extroversion.’
– ‘Our flight was delayed, our connection was delayed, but we made it from one to the other and so did our luggage.’
– ‘I’m sorry that you’re freezing your hineys off and I’m sorry our skiers don’t have fresh deep snow, but it’s sooo nice for us who are here and able to take walks outside without a coat on…..’
Sounds like everybody’s doing this Christmas-to-New-Year’s week their own way.
You’ve likely noticed – and maybe even been surprised – and I hope enjoyed – that our halls are still decked around here. We still have our cast of characters front and center on the communion table … and (spoiler alert!) they’re not even all here yet. There is a reason we keep things up through the full season of Christmas, til Epiphany. Know why? ‘Cause it’s not over.
I know Christmas Day has passed, but as I tried to encourage you last weekend – and many of you laughed as I said it! – the season of Christmas actually starts ON Christmas Day. Those ‘twelve days’ we love to hear Straight No Chaser sing about? Day 1 IS Christmas. So that means today is … Day 7. (If you’re still hoping to find those swans a-swimming today, you miiiiight need to look farther south. Like, way farther.)
The four Sundays leading up to Christmas are called Advent. It is the start of the Christian year, and it is the time we spend getting ready for the astonishing reality of the birth of Christ into the world. Christmas starts on Christmas Day. So all of that hope and peace and joy and love we built up during the season of Advent – during the season of preparation and waiting and watching? We still have that! We still have the chance to give those gifts, and to receive them! ‘Cause it’s not over.
This is our chance to stop, and notice.
– To stay a little longer.
– To not run around so much, and maybe just be still.
– To do less, not more.
When we immediately bundle up the wrapping and the boxes for the recycle bin,
when we use the day after Christmas to put Christmas stuff away,
when we’ve taken all of the things that we say are so treasured and so important that we can’t wait to get them out and start sneaking storage bins in somewhere around Halloween …
What are we saying … When we take what we proclaim as meaningful and wonder-full and marking a significant occasion … and the next day declare it useless and a nuisance …
What are we saying about the One for whom we waited so long?
What are we saying to a world that could certainly use MORE light and love, not less?
What are we saying to our children, our friends, our neighbors we don’t even know?
What are we saying, by what we do, about what matters in the world?
(Now, side note. Yes, I understand extenuating circumstances, and travel schedules, and personal needs and preferences, and of course things like overstimulation and even OCD. That’s not what I’m talking about. We’re working more on the mindset … on what the things represent … what the actions say … what we say by what we do. All social media teasing aside: I’m not condemning how you do it in your house. I am not décor-shaming. I am trying to give us a few things to think about – theologically – in this house, together.)
If we were here on Christmas Eve, and got all teary-eyed again,
just like we do every year at the singing of Silent Night;
If we were here on Christmas Eve and were eager to capture that picture
of our children and grandchildren seated down the aisle, lighting candles in a place we love, sharing the moment those who weren’t with us;
If we were here and heard the Word of God read,
the very word about the Word of God born into the world …
If we were here at Christmas Eve and read up to verse 20
where Mary ponders all these things in her heart …
and then we quit? And we jump right to the new year and resolutions and what’s next and get on with it?
We miss so much! We miss SO much. ‘Cause it’s not over.
When we wrap the story with the Christmas Eve reading, and throw the rest of it out with the wrapping paper, we miss:
- naming the baby
- marking him within the covenant promise
- a ritual of presentation
- the reward of a man’s lifelong faithfulness
- a prayer of thanksgiving
- a blessing for new parents
- a woman’s voice, named as a prophet
- one of the first tellings of the story of Jesus
- the confirmation that all the waiting and watching has been worth it
If we look at verse 21 to get the full extent of the story, we see that Mary and Joseph present the infant Jesus at the temple on his 8th day, as prescribed by the Torah – the scripture and law – for his circumcision. This sign of covenant binding, of his full participation in the community of faith, is symbolized not only through the rite itself. This also the moment when the named that was declared for him is pronounced as truly his : Jesus, we read from the Greek; Yeshua/Joshua in the Hebrew.
The second ritual – purification – is really not ‘theirs’ so much as ‘hers’. In the Jewish law captured in Leviticus (12), the mother practiced a ritual purification 40 days after the birth of a son. There is not a law that prescribes the ‘presentation’ we see in Luke, but the family might have made the ‘redemption of the firstborn’ sacrifice, named in Exodus (13). This would have been a lamb, sacrificed in gratitude for the honor of a firstborn son; you may have noticed that turtledoves and pigeons are mentioned here instead. This shows us the poverty into which Jesus was born; birds are the sacrifices acceptable from poor families, to still meet the ritual offering.[i]
It is at this presentation – again at the temple – that we meet Simeon and Anna, who are everybody’s ‘let me hold that baby’ grandparents, the ones who say the sweetest prayers and give the best advice. They are both deeply faithful – Simeon having received a word from the Holy Spirit, and Anna named as a woman of deep prayer and even called a prophet. They are not married, but they are one of several male/female pairs in Luke’s narrative. In Luke’s telling of Jesus’s nativity, men and women play equal and prominent roles in the naming, claiming, and proclaiming of the Child : Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth then Zechariah, now Simeon and Anna.
As Matthew Skinner says, “The gospel of Luke roots the coming of Jesus in the larger story of God’s reliability. … Why should anyone put hope in a god who lacks the power or resolve to deliver on promises?” John the Baptizer and Jesus are both recognized at the announcement of their conception as those who will fulfill promises made by God through the prophets. Mary and Zechariah both sing songs of a God who remembers covenant. Now Simeon and Anna will confirm that God is doing exactly what God said.[ii]
Alan Culpepper reminds us – because sometimes we need reminding – that fulfillment, especially fulfillment of the law of the Lord, is a major theme of Jesus’s birth. [iii]
Simeon echoes the language of the prophet Isaiah, naming the promised consolation of Israel, celebrating this One – this Messiah – who has come. He prays blessing, that the Light now revealed to the world is for all people, for Jew and Gentile alike. He acknowledges in his prayer that this Light will reveal division as well. Yet even as he anticipates the breaking of this mother’s heart, this old man of great faith, there in the temple court itself, brings a distant echo of the old priest Eli with Hannah over Samuel. Here Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph as they hold their month-old son. [iv]
Anna, while not named as having received word from the Holy Spirit (like Simeon), is named as a woman of deep and persistent faith. She is the pray-er of the community; fasting and praying are her disciplines and her long life has been nothing but faithful watching for this now-arrived Messiah. While we don’t hear her words, we know she is a prophet, like Miriam and Deborah and Huldah before her – and that she was one of the earliest to proclaim the gospel of this great good news to ‘all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’. Anna did that, because she waited with faith, know that with God it was not over. [v]
See how much? See how much we miss if we stop at verse 20 and put the story away? It’s not over. God is still revealing God’s-self … not just in the moment of the annunciation to Mary, not just to the shepherds in the fields, and not just in the manger as the baby finally arrives. God is revealed in all of the moments after.
Simeon (whose name means listening, hearing, obedient) and Anna (meaning grace, favor, beauty) declare that God is not done. They say the Messiah has come, that the world might know God’s promises hold true, that all would be saved through the love and grace of God-With-Us, the promised Emmanuel born to and for us. And they say that it is only the beginning!
Simeon and Anna’s announcements – these proclamations affirming the role and meaning of the Christ Child – take place in the temple. The temple is where the believers have come to meet God, where Jewish tradition held that God was actually present. But now God will be going into the world – into all the world, for all the people. [vi]
Jewish law and practice taught honoring of God in all things … rituals to mark occasions are not for the show of piety, but to help the community remember what matters and why. This moment – this blessing and prophecy – is our week in between: If we will take it, it gives us a chance to breathe in the transcendence.
Dr Culpepper suggests:
The challenge to modern Christians, therefore, is to find effective rituals for celebrating the presence of God in the ordinary.
We need to learn to greet the morning with gratitude; to celebrate the goodness of food, family, and friendship at meals; to recognize mystery in beauty; and to mark rites of passage … Rituals are not restrictive; they celebrate the goodness and mystery of life.
Words can be powerful, especially in the context of rituals and celebrations. Commitments are made. Love is given a voice. Promises shape relationships. The words spoken to Joseph and Mary are the center of this scene, but they stand in a powerful context: obedience to the Law, celebration of a birth, worship in the temple, and recognition that God’s promises were being fulfilled. The ceremony was not a foreign intrusion into their lives but an expression of their deepest awareness and commitments.
We live most of our time in the in-between. We live our lives in the space between a promise fulfilled, and the true fullness of the reality to come. What can we say – what can we say by what we do – to reveal that this in-between space matters?
How can we see that ‘Love is given a voice.‘?
When we take the time to appreciate the fullness of the season … when we hold the hope, peace, joy, and love fully from Christmas, when the Christ Child arrives, through Epiphany, when the wise ones rejoice … we give voice to the needs of the world – and to the ways those needs can be met.
When we know that in between promise and reality, someone is sleeping in the cold, even fleeing for their life, seeking refuge from their dark night – and we take the chance to be promise and warmth and light …
When we know that in between promise and reality, children are being traded for sex and money that will break their bodies and kill their spirits – and we join with those who will offer shelter and rescue …
When we know that in between promise and reality, someone whose skin is not white lives in daily insult and even terror that we cannot fathom – and we use our voice not only to say its wrong, but to work to dismantle the decades of systems that have made it so …
When we know that in between promise and reality, women are still paid less, abused more, and expected to be okay with it – and we can simply listen and let them speak when they need to say ‘me too’ and believe them when they say it …
When we know that in between promise and reality, some whom we’ve elected are representing their own interests, with little care for ours – and we take the time to educate ourselves, to work in our communities and our schools, and to marshall the resources and the willpower that the church has always managed to find when no one else will …
We remember that it’s not over. And we live like it. We say it. We say God is not done.
We say it’s not over.
That fear will not win.
That hurt cannot last.
That division will cease.
That peace is possible.
And that it doesn’t require giving up anything, or putting anything aside, or packing it away.
It requires us taking on the action, and the life, and the love, and the wisdom that is right there in front of us in the person of Jesus Christ.
It requires us being who we claim we are.
The in-between calls on us to mark the moments … to honor the everyday … to live in great prayer and deep faithfulness … to speak when the time comes … to tell the story of the One who came, born poor and vulnerable and escaping a tyrant, and yet still was blessed by the prophets and the community in fulfillment of the promise; still grew in wisdom and favor; still knew the truth of the Divine Presence.
Who knew then …
And says to us now …
It’s not over.
* * * * *
[i] Jewish Annotated New Testament, Levine & Brettler, eds. (Oxford 2011) pp102-103
[ii] Matthew Skinner, Intrusive God, Disruptive Gospel (Brazos Press 2015) pp18-19
[iii] Alan Culpepper, ‘Luke’, in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Abingdon 1995) pp 68-75
[iv] Levine and Brettler.
[v] characterization of Anna: from Levine/Brettler, and from Women’s Bible Commentary, Newsom & Ringe, eds. (Westminster John Knox 1992) p283