SIRACH 3:2-7 COLOSSIANS 3:12-21 LUKE 2:22-40
About 30 days after Jesus’ birth Mary and Joseph traveled to Jerusalem to perform two religious rituals, the redemption of the firstborn and the purification of the mother. It was common belief that every firstborn male belonged to God. This may be a remnant from the ancient days when the first born was sacrificed to the gods. This was abhorrent to the Jewish psyche, and so it evolved the pagan practice into a simple ritual of offering a “ransom” for the child by giving a small donation to the priests.
The purification of the mother ended the period of time after the birth of a child when a woman was considered ritually unclean – forty days for a boy and eighty days for a girl. A sheep was generally sacrificed for her purification. However, the poor could offer two turtle doves or two pigeons. This was Mary’s offering.
By noting these rituals Luke, who was writing to people who weren’t Jewish, was making it clear to his readers that Jesus was totally integrated into Jewish life and culture. He had already noted that Jesus was a descendent of King David. Simultaneously, Luke was stressing that, with the birth of Jesus, Israel was on the brink of a new time – the Messianic time. He illustrated this by introducing five characters into his infancy narrative.
The first three were Zachariah, his wife Elizabeth and their son, John. Zachariah represented the old time. He was a priest of the old covenant. His wife, a symbol of Israel, was barren as Israel seemed to be. However, their miracle baby, John, was to be the first sign of new life for Israel. He would be Israel’s last prophet. He would announce the coming of the new time and prepare the people to welcome it.
The scene we read today introduces Simeon and Anna. They both recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Simeon was a good and righteous man who prayed that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Messiah. As he took Jesus into his arms he broke into a prayer declaring him “a light of revelation for the Gentiles and the glory of your people, Israel.” The new time had certainly arrived. But it would be a time of challenge, too. Simeon turned to Mary and continued his prophecy. “This child is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Luke then introduced Anna into the scene, an eighty-four-year-old prophetess. She was the symbol of Israel’s long and dedicated fidelity to God’s covenant. “She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.” She announced the arrival of the new time to “all who were awaiting the redemption of Israel.”
What’s Luke trying to say to us in this passage? He’s reflecting on the birth of the new Israel. This has nothing to do with a country. Israel is a people – God’s people – God’s chosen people. Simeon and Anna are the old Israel – loyal and faithful but tired. There was a time when the prophets spoke God’s word to them. But it had been four hundred years since God had spoken through a prophet. John the Baptist would break that silence. His words would usher in the new time.
Everything we’ve read from Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus gives definition to the new time. It’s shocking, and maybe even disturbing, because it’s not what anyone of us would have expected. The Messiah was to be a king and a savior, but in our earthly assessment he was powerless. He wasn’t like the kings we’ve known or the military figures who brought peace by conquering nations. He was poor. He was homeless. His bed was a feeding trough. The message he preached was love.
Luke is telling us that in the new time we can no longer trust the things we’ve always trusted. The structures of power and control that we’ve relied upon for so long to maintain order and promote a spotty prosperity are obsolete. The new time is to be marked by the power
of selfless love. It will be modeled by a Messiah king who will pour out his life for others. He will even become the bread of life for anyone who hungers for life in the new time.
We call this Sunday Family Sunday. But it’s not so much about a mother and a father and the children. It’s about the new family in the new time. But if self-giving is the hallmark of the new time, what does the family look like? In the new time the family isn’t only a small unit, it’s also global, its people caring for each other and pouring out their lives in love for one another.
Since the birth of Jesus, we’ve been struggling to let the new time reign, but we’ve been hanging on to the old time, its values and its methods. Every Christmas Season the scriptures remind us to let go! To begin to envision the new time. To take your first steps into that new time. I’ll conclude my reflection now. I encourage you to contemplate these scriptures taken from our Advent and Christmas scriptures. As you do so, open you heart to the new time.
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“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again. O house of Jacob, come, walk in the light of the Lord!” (1st Sunday of Advent)
“Let us, then, throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (1st Sunday of Advent)
“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify God, the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” (2 nd Sunday of Advent)
“Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand!” (2nd Sunday of Advent)
“Be patient, my brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.” (3 rd Sunday of Advent)
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners…” (3 rd Sunday of Advent)
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, upon those who dwell in the land of gloom a light has shone.” (Midnight Mass)
“In times past, God spoke to us in partial and various ways through the prophets; in these last days he has spoken to us through the Son…” (Christmas Day)