by Daniel Harrell
I trust you’ve enjoyed all the splendid and inspiring Advent devotionals sent to your inbox this season—all written by our own church members, each prompted by an Advent Companion we all received to journey with us through these weeks of waiting. I drew Elizabeth as my Advent Companion, famous for being Mary’s cousin and the mother of a feisty John the Baptist. We read that Elizabeth was well on in years when she got pregnant. I identify with the getting older part, but wasn’t quite sure what to do with the pregnancy part. The apostle Paul, a man, wrote metaphorically about enduring the pains of childbirth throughout his New Testament letters, so I suppose there is precedent. Now that I’ve broken my wrist and had surgery, my own pain and endurance, while nothing like childbirth, has made an appearance. I’m now waiting on the Spirit to do something with it.
The Holy Spirit is very busy during Advent. The Spirit fills Elizabeth and makes her a prophet, comes upon Mary and makes her a mother, shuts up Zechariah for asking angels too many questions before opening his mouth again after John the Baptist is born. In this morning’s passage, we meet Simeon and Anna, both led by the Spirit and likewise filled by the Spirit, who both speak for the Spirit. I’ve taken Advent Sundays to focus on characters from the Christmas Story who weren’t in the Advent Companion Card deck. I started with Zechariah and then went with the maniacal King Herod. Simeon and Anna don’t show up until eight days after Christmas Day, so I’m getting ahead of myself. Spoiler Alert: Don’t let me ruin the Christmas story if you’ve never heard it before.
According to the countdown Christmas carol, the eighth day features eight Maids-A-Milking. But according to Jewish reckoning, the eighth day means Mohels-a-Circumcising, an immensely important milestone if you’re Jewish and a baby and a boy. Circumcision dates back to the Book of Genesis, where the Lord decreed to Abraham without reason, “Every male throughout your generations that is eight days old among you shall be circumcised as sign of the covenant between me and you.” The generations have been left to wonder why not a tattoo or a pierced ear instead of circumcision. The reason, obviously I trust, had to do with offspring and proper bloodlines and lineage. Jesus broke the line, however. He never had biological kids but ended up with plenty of children.
Following his resurrection and the coming of the very busy Holy Spirit at Pentecost (resurrection and Pentecost also happened on eighth days), circumcision of the flesh gave way to circumcision of the heart. Being a child of God is a matter of grace rather than genetics, Christ’s blood rather than Abraham’s bloodline. Baptism is now the covenant sign, a border opened for everybody: Jews and Gentiles, sons and daughters, infants and adults. Jesus saves the whole world just as Simeon foresees in this morning’s passage.
Nevertheless, in obedience to the law of Moses so as to fulfill all righteousness (and perhaps to offset all the scandal surrounding his birth), Mary and Joseph had Jesus circumcised and properly presented: “every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord.” We also read about a sacrifice of two pigeons and two turtledoves (just like the countdown carol), which were for Mary’s purification. According to Jewish law, a woman became ceremonially unclean on the birth of a child. On the eighth day, sons were circumcised, after which a mother had to wait another 33 days before she could enter the Temple and return to worship (66 days if the child was a girl). Modern sensibilities tend to be affronted by such gender restrictions, but it might be helpful to know that being unclean also meant you weren’t allowed to cook or do any housework. The purification sacrifice was normally a lamb, unless you were poor like Mary. (Though one might wonder here why those shepherds didn’t step up to help out with a sheep.) The point in all of this was to show Jesus as raised in conformity to Scripture and in solidarity with the poor. “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”
As told by an angel, his parents named him Jesus, which means “God saves.” Anna, an official prophet and an elderly widow, had been waiting a long time for salvation—-what our text describes as “the redemption of Jerusalem,” a city and a people oppressed by Roman captivity. As a prophet-widow who prayed tenaciously and fasted “night and day,” she reminds us of the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable, about whom it is asked: “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?”
One look at baby Jesus and she knew her prayers had been answered. Imagine having your child baptized in church. You’re worried only about whether he will cry or not, when suddenly an old lady from the congregation runs up, takes a peek and starts praising the Lord for saving the world. It must have been quite a moment.
And this was right after Simeon, righteous and full of the Holy Spirit, took baby Jesus in his arms and rejoiced that his eyes had finally seen God’s salvation too. He could now rest in peace. Mary and Joseph were speechless. Serenaded already by angels and honored by shepherds, a pair of prophets cradled their infant, laud him as savior and called him the light of the world. Prophets long before had promised how people walking in darkness would see a great light. Simeon knew this was Jesus. Jesus knew it too. “I am the light of the world” he would audaciously declare years later. Calling yourself “the light” is like calling yourself God since it was God who said “let there be light” in the first place. No wonder Jesus offended so many. People thought he was crazy. Many considered him dangerous.
Simeon told Jesus’ parents he’d be cause for trouble, “destined for the falling and rising of many, a sign that will be opposed, exposing the innermost thoughts of human hearts.” “Light came to the world,” Jesus would say, speaking of himself, “but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Light shines, but it also blinds. It illumines and reveals. Light causes thick shadows to show, “evoking the human worst even as it testifies to the divine best.” Light cuts like a knife, a double edged sword that gleams as a sure sign of salvation—glory for Israel and revelation to Gentiles—but it also opens us up to expose our own need for salvation.
Light’s power to slice open comes as no surprise to Star Wars fans for whom that never-ending movie saga has long served as a kind of cultural salvation story—light versus darkness, the Force as a stand-in for the Holy Spirit. Maybe one of your kids or grandkids is getting a toy light saber for Christmas. Or maybe you’re getting one yourself. You’ll remember I gave Dawn a real saber one Christmas—a broadsword—her best Christmas present ever. She has it with her this morning in case you haven’t seen it. She doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to carry it around.
I got the idea one Christmas after attending a family funeral. The open casket was chock full of mementoes that would accompany my dearly departed grandfather into glory: a favorite tie, a baseball cap, a military medal. Afterwards, reflecting upon her own mortality, my wife—who is Scottish on both sides of her family and an avid fan of Tolkien and Norse mythology—mentioned, off-handedly, how when it came her time to go, she’d like to be buried holding a sword. Immediately I thought: Jingle bells! What a perfect opportunity to demonstrate how well I listen and know what she wants! How well I pick up on the little things. I raced online and Googled broadswords and, lo and behold, eBay was stocked to the hilt. I found the perfect Christmas present.
Granted, it was a little hard to wrap and disguise under the tree, but I managed to pull it off. Christmas morning came and Dawn tried to guess what it was. She thought maybe an extension for the vacuum cleaner? Or an ironing board? Something romantic like that. She was in for such a surprise! She eagerly unwrapped it—unsheathed it I should say—and oh that look in her eyes! I could tell she was thrilled. She hardly knew what to say. “A sword. You bought me a sword. Why did you buy me a sword?” And I said, “remember how you mentioned that when you died you wanted to be buried holding a sword? Now you have one!” “Well, thank you, dear,” she said. “I guess it is good to get those funeral arrangements out of the way early. What a shame Santa couldn’t get a casket down the chimney too.” “Oh, don’t be silly,” I said. We don’t―have―a―chimney. Wait a minute. Was she being sarcastic? Nah. She loved it. I could tell. She couldn’t sleep for nights afterwards. She’d just lie in bed with her eyes wide open clutching that sword in her hand, staring at me with just a little worry on her face. I could tell she was excited. She was so excited that she could hardly eat. She refused to put a single morsel of anything I cooked in her mouth for the next several weeks. She wouldn’t ride with me in the car either. Though come to think of it, that was a little weird.
At Jesus’ birth, we sing about the Magi and their Christmas presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold and frankincense made sense. Both were gifts fit for a king—gold was a symbol of royalty and incense the aroma of power. Myrrh, on the other hand, was mostly used to anoint dead bodies. In a day before funeral homes, preservatives and caskets, myrrh kept corpses from stinking. Why kind of present was this to bring to a baby? What would you do if as a mother someone showed up bearing embalming fluid? Why not just give Mary a sword too?
Simeon says it’s on its way: “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Far from the kind of salvation Anna and Simeon imagined, Simeon’s prophecy foreshadowed the cross, a violent sword wielded by ancient Rome to keep a petulant public in line. The Empire designed it as a brutal reprisal against any rebellion—a clear warning against those who might threaten the government’s power. Nothing good that could be affirmed about crosses; they were designed to extinguish life in a most horrifying fashion. The cross represents the culmination of human history gone wrong—an instrument of torture standing for all the other dead ends of history, from spears to bombs, from gas chambers to semi-automatic assault rifles. If “the hopes and fears of all the years” were met in Jesus birth, they would shatter as Jesus’ ignominiously fell on a sword for human sin.
Afterwards, as if there weren’t enough indignity, no suitable place could be found to bury him, just as there had been no suitable place for Jesus to be born. As with the spare manger, a sympathetic Pharisee from Arimathea, another Joseph, offered up a spare burial tomb and rounded up some myrrh. The Magi had seen it coming as Simeon saw it. A sword of execution and shame pierced Jesus. A sword of deep sorrow pierced Mary’s soul.
God with us is not always holly and ivy. For me this season it’s been broken bones and surgery, frustrating and debilitating but nothing compared to the grief suffered by others: cancer and broken marriages and miscarriages and memory loss and children in trouble, a government breakdown and shutdown, so much anger and worry; retirement portfolios and savings accounts plummet alongside the populations caught up in war and famine and even the very planet we inhabit—yesterday’s headlines had Arctic ice melting at a rate of 14K tons a second. As one writer put it, “We don’t know how long we’ve got, and none of our stories seem to be working. If we survive, it will be in a version of ourselves unrecognizable to ourselves.”
The same with our own salvation. Jesus says come as you are, but he never lets us survive as we are. Advent, celebrated as an onramp to Christmas, always has another coming in mind. Turn to the book of Revelation at the end of the Bible, and in chapter 19, right after the passage that provides the lyrics to the Hallelujah Chorus, a mighty Jesus rides in, “clothed in a robe dipped in blood, his name called The Word of God,” wielding his own sword in a most dangerous fashion—protruding out of his mouth. Jesus’ sword is not a literal blade forged of metal, but something much sharper. The book of Hebrews labels the living and active word of God, “sharper than any double-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
Which was what Simeon prophesied about Jesus. As the Word made flesh, Christ cuts to the heart. “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth,” Jesus warned, despite the Christmas angels’ greeting. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”—speaking truth, exposing pride, bringing disruption and puncturing the death-giving lies we tell ourselves, all for the sake of new birth.
There are so many paradoxes we defiantly celebrate every Christmas, tensions with which we wrestle for the sake of our own souls. The sorrow and suffering endemic to our world and to the Christian story, along with all the anxiety and fear, provides the best soil for redemption. Light shines brightest in deep darkness. Jesus is born into scandal and poverty and as a refugee, into a dicey lineage of Biblical “murderers, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars,” he causes controversy with his constant stress on righteousness and disrupts the status quo; he loves to the extreme only to be betrayed, rejected and abandoned, unjustly crucified dead on a cross and buried in disgrace, and we praise the Lord for it. We sing hallelujah as Jesus rises and redeems an ancient apparatus of heartless torture into the ultimate symbol of Christian faith. The dark visage of the cross becomes the bright light of salvation; the outrage of crucifixion the outrageous joy of new creation, the pure praise of new life. The sword that pierced Mary’s soul is the blade of grace and glory wielded by our risen king who achieves victory by way of defeat. It’s a sure hope and a sure thing, already ours in Christ Jesus our Lord, the one who came, the one who comes and the one who is ever-coming. And thus with Simeon and Anna and every Advent Companion we say not only Come Lord Jesus, but welcome.