I grew up in Michigan’s Bible Belt. Not quite the same as the bible belt that runs through the south, but the streets rolled up on Sundays because all the businesses were closed kind. My own religious history is somewhat unique, and confusing for those who haven’t lived that kind of experience. Anyway, that’s something for another time, but if you’re ever curious, I’m happy to talk about it.
So I grew up in Michigan’s Bible Belt. I didn’t grow up evangelical, but there were surely evangelical influences in my community. This often came to the fore during Advent, or what everyone else knows as the secular Christmas season. Christmas is a season, it is just after Christmas day not before it. During December, there are all sorts of other things for Americans, particularly evangelicals to get worked up about. There was the “don’t x out Christ” way to oppose writing Xmas, which, of course, is not that at all, but X is the first letter of the Greek word Christos, which means Christ, and X is, itself, an acceptable abbreviation for Christ. There’s also “happy holidays” versus “Merry Christmas,” despite the fact that the word “holiday” is derived from holy day. People are divided on the virgin birth, people remind us that the stable in first century palestine was actually part of the house and not a separate shed out back, and so we imagine it wrong. Was there a star? What kind of star? Who were the magi? Were there only three, or more? Whence did they come? Could things in the story happen like that? And do you remember the bit of very one-sided controversy a few years ago over the Starbucks cup that was just red and didn’t say Merry Christmas? Oh, the so-called war on Christmas. Which is, itself, the war on Christmas, but that is another discussion. And even apart from the controversies, there’s trees and wreaths and ornaments and tinsel, oh, so very much tinsel, and lights, and the consumerism, and there’s oh, so much to look at and focus on.
People look all sorts of things, but in all these things, it seems that no one is actually looking at the child, the flesh and blood occupant of the manger.
Lest we think that Christmas is over, we’ve got more than a week of Christmas left, we find ourselves in a scene which is not as moving as the manger and the shepherds and the angels, and is certainly not as well known. In fact, we only find it in Luke’s telling.
We have here Simeon, and he is a rather shadow-y figure, since he only shows up once. We know he’s old, how old, we do not know. Tradition holds that he was somewhere between 270 and 360 years old. Now, there are reasons for this tradition, and immediately we get caught up in the details: how could someone live that long? And in getting caught up in the details we often miss the bigger point. What we can be confident of is that he is old, and that he has been waiting for something for a long time.
Simeon isn’t noted to be a priest, rather that he was a righteous and devout man, that the Holy Spirit rested on him, and that he was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” He was looking forward to the consolation of Israel. Someone who would set things right, who would bring healing to a hurting people, looking forward to when the cosmos are made right.
And he was told that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s anointed.
And so Simeon, seemingly in the temple because that is what he does. There’s nothing special about this day, nothing special about what Mary and Joseph and Jesus are doing, here, this was quite a normal thing for a family to do. The sacrifice that they make is the offering for people who are poor, so they are clearly of no particular standing. And the temple was always bustling with activity, it was like the city commons, people where there, and people from all over could be in the outermost court, even those who were not Jews. And so there is no particular reason why this family would have been in any way remarkable.
But Simeon, we are told, was guided by the Holy Spirit to go to the temple at the moment when the family was completing their religious duty, and something amazing happens. In this unremarkable moment with this seemingly unremarkable family this aged man, whether you believe that he’s 360 or 270 or a normal old age, this aged man, sees the thing for which we waited for his entire life, the thing for which he looked forward to. Finally, this an was able to see that which would bring the consolation of Israel. And in his aged hands, probably spotted with age and perhaps twisted with arthritis, but this aged man holds this baby and affirms that he is now able to depart for his work has been accomplished, for “my eyes have seen [God’s] salvation.”
And all Simeon did was show up at the temple, and look, and pay attention, and listen to God’s urging.
I almost imagine tears of joy streaming from his eyes as he sees the fulfillment of his life’s journey, and which he holds in his arms.
And then we see Anna, another prophet, who was also advanced in years, long been a widow, and had dedicated herself to the service of God, and we are told that she began to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
And here we have two movements, recognition and telling. Because Simeon wasn’t the only person who was looking for the redemption of his people, others were as well. And Simeon recognized the salvation that he held in his hands, and Anna could not, nor did she want to, keep the news of this salvation to herself, but she praised God and spoke to people about what she had seen, told all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
And so we find ourselves in Christmas, when everyone else thinks Christmas is over, and there’s actually something nice about that. No Santas in the mall and no I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas on the radio, and even Hallmark has moved on. The gifts are unwrapped the wassail is gone and the tinsel is starting to come down.
And it allows us some space to us to think about what we are looking forward to. The restoration that we have been looking toward. We may not have quite the years that Simeon had, but we carry weight with us, as well. The end of secular Christmas allows us to listen to the promptings of the Spirit, to show up, and to look, to pay attention, and to see, even in the most unexpected, and perhaps unlikely places, the salvation of God.
May we be like Simeon and never give up. And when we stop looking at all the other things around us, and we look at the child, we can look to the One who meets all the hopes and fears of all the years. And may we be like Anna and talk about this child, and who this child will grow up to be, and still is, to all who are, themselves, looking for redemption, even if what they long for is not identified exactly in that way. Our world longs for redemption, we look forward to redemption. We look forward to justice, to peace, to wholeness. We look forward to a time in which inequality is eliminated, oppression and injustice cease, when wars no longer rage, and it is in the promise that this child holds that all of this can be found and ultimately accomplished. And may we give thanks to God when we get a glimpse of salvation, even in the seeming unlikely places, and may we speak of this glimpse of salvation to a world which longs for redemption.