Christmas Day, 2016 Isaiah 52: 7-10, Luke 2: 25-35
Coming in Peace, Departing in Peace
Isaiah 52: 7-10
From the second book of Isaiah we hear words of encouragement. Isaiah speaks as the people return from their years in exile in Babylon proclaiming that the messenger from God has brought good news of peace and salvation. He calls them to listen, to break out in song and to praise God because all nations will know of God’s salvation for the people coming out of exile.
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Luke 2: 25-35
In my experience, the day after giving birth is filled with this euphoric peace. That might sound like some idealized oxymoron but that is how I remember all three of my children’s births and the days that followed. Health wise did I feel good, no not necessarily, was I sore and still feeling a bit heavy. But I thought I was the most blessed woman in all the earth on that day, the only woman who had ever given birth. It was a miracle.
This miracle of birth brings hope and love and a new little human and I was filled with the joy and excitement of being a new mother and seeing my child for the very first time. More importantly though this joy brought me the most inner peace in the world. All was calm, all was bright, I needed nothing else, just my baby beside me.
I think that the first day after Jesus’ birth might have been similar. Mary and Joseph are resting in the stable when the dawn comes and little Jesus is sleeping peacefully all bundled up warm to keep the night’s chill away. The animals have finally settled down and reworked the straw and hay to accommodate their own comfort because with three extra people in their space it’s a little more crowded than usual in the stable.
The angels, who heralded loudly of Jesus’ birth just last night, now have retreated into a quiet presence surrounding the stable. Echo’s of their joy lingers in the air. The shepherds have been attentive to their flocks and have moved on out into the Judean hill country of Bethlehem to pasture them. And the brilliant star recedes as the dawn’s light is peaking through the cracks of the wooden stable. Silence, peace.
That’s what Christmas Day has always felt like to me. No matter what the chaos is inside my house was on Christmas Eve, on Christmas Day when I walk outside there is a calmness that gently engulfs the earth like a handmade woolen shawl surrounds its wearer. Much, like I imagine that first morning after Jesus’ birth. He came in peace to bring us peace. Christ, our Savior is born.
But the story doesn’t end there, Luke continues and pens perhaps the most poignant part of the story for us as we move on from Jesus birth.
After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
As an observant Jewish mother, Mary brings her son Jesus from that little stable in Bethlehem to the temple in overcrowded Jerusalem only eight days after his birth. While six miles may not seem like much, for a newborn on a donkey it probably was a pretty rough trip. But it was a necessary trip because according to Jewish law it was time for purification and a naming ceremony that would designate their first-born child as holy.
When they get there they find that there are others in the temple that day, in fact the temple always had folks around it, many elderly, widowed or disabled; it was sanctuary for them. Two of them become an important part of the Christmas story.
So we witness the lives of Simeon and Anna. They are everyday elderly people, who have dedicated a major portion of their lives to God. They were faithful people their entire life. As prophets through vigilant prayer and fasting they are able to speak for God, and be open to the revelation that God gave to them. That God is operative in human history; God has reached down to this earth, to you and to me, to be an intimate part of our lives. That we Gentiles are included in God’s salvation.
The Song of Simeon is perhaps one of the most beautiful canticles in the Canon. We sang it just a few minutes ago in between the words of Isaiah and the reading from Luke. In the faith tradition that I grew up in, it was sung after communion every Sunday…it’s called the Nunc Dimittis in Latin, or ‘now you dismiss’. The words, “Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation: which Thou has prepared before the face of all people, a Light to lighten the Gentiles and the Glory of Thy people Israel” those words bring peace to my soul. We sang it after being fed at the communion table in recognition that our eyes had been opened through this sacrament of love and grace, forgiveness and hope. We have tasted and have seen that God, really is good and so very much a part of our lives. (Psalm 34:8.)
Now that Simeon has seen and cuddled Jesus, now that he has smelled the sweet scent of the holy infant’s head, and caressed the soft cheeks of the baby Savior, he praises God for the gift of the Christ Child. For Simeon can now leave this earthly life behind; he can depart in peace…and in joy. He has seen and held God’s salvation in Jesus. He is complete, he experiences shalom. Simeon can leave contentedly, he can leave all worldliness behind because the Christ Child, Emmanuel is with him.
And Anna too began to praise God for the incredible gift of love and redemption in Jesus Christ. Together they punctuate Christ’s birth with transformative actions.
How has the birth of Christ changed you? Or maybe the bigger question is has the birth of Christ changed or even affected you? Unless the birth of Christ transforms you, awakens you, nudges you to greater understanding and transformative ways in your living and doing for others then perhaps my friends you’ve missed the point of Christmas. This little one from the manger asks a lot of us yet at the same time asks nothing of us except our love, our praise and our adoration. May we offer this today
and receive the peace of God through Jesus Christ.