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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
I imagine in most of homes across Minnesota, the Christmas decorations have finally made it up the stairs to the attic to be stored away for another year, or at least they have made it to the landing where they are now waiting for the last push. That’s the way it is in our house where we every January we debate when Christmas is officially over? Of course, for those with small children, you know that Christmas is over when the original batteries included with your children’s presents have died. And for those with budding adolescents, you know that Christmas is over when you haul out the Christmas tree and all that is left behind is a handful of lost Lego toys and a discarded Star Wars Advent calendar. For the party hosts, who were very few this year, you know that Christmas is over when your trash and recycling bins are overflowing, and you’ve already missed the garbage man twice. There is no “official” date on which Christmas is actually over, but Candlemas, February 2nd is pretty close. In our house, the Christmas tree must remain in place until Epiphany on January 6th. After that, everything else is up for discussion until the 40th day of Christmas- when, as my wife insists, it must be gone.
Unfortunately, in our New Year’s rush to return to normal life, and to throw out everything that’s tied to the Old Year, there are two characters in St. Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth who are sadly overlooked. They don’t even appear until the 40th day of Christmas. Even lesser characters have had their due. I am reminded of the father who finally had time mid- January to study the Christmas card his son had drawn. He recognized Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger, but he wasn’t so sure about the rather fat fellow standing in the corner of the stable, so he asked his son. “Who is this man?” The boy answered nonchalantly, “Oh dad. You know the song Silent Night. That’s Round John Virgin.”
I’ll be honest that I’ve never seen Simeon or Anna depicted in a nativity set, much less Round John Virgin, nor are they featured on a Christmas card. They are never mentioned in any Christmas carols that I’m aware of. But when Jesus was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth, these two old saints, Simeon and Anna, were the only ones among thousand who were present that day, who recognized him. Far too often, in the early days of Christmas, people only see Jesus as a baby lying in a manger and nothing more, and then they return to life’s normal patterns. If we threw out the 40th day of Christmas as quickly as we throw out our Christmas trees, I am afraid that we would miss out on one of the most beautiful passages of scripture. More importantly, we might miss out on the true message of Christmas and the wisdom of two wise sages. You see, in matter of faith, you needn’t rush back to normal.
Our gospel today begins 40 days after the birth of Jesus, after the young mother’s rest and recovery had ended, and as Mary and Joseph were finally leaving Bethlehem and returning home to Nazareth. There would still be a few days ahead for their journey, but they could see the light at the end of the tunnel. A normal life was what they were longing for. Never the less, by the demands of the Jewish law of purification, they were required to stop in Jerusalem and present an offering in the Temple on behalf of Mary and their infant son Jesus. Joseph wanted to return to his work as a carpenter, and he needed to. The loss of wages and the expenses of living away from Nazareth weighed heavily on him. The young Mary wanted nothing more than to share the excitement and wonder of her infant son with her neighbors. Yes, they longed for life to return to normal, to the predictable- even if it would be different with the addition child to their home.
Oddly, had Mary and Joseph rushed too quickly to return to normal, they would have missed the blessings that Simeon and Anna had to offer them. That is true for all those who rush to pack up the story of Christmas too early. They never hear the foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They never hear the promise of comfort and salvation. They never hear majesty of Simeon’s prophecy and his warning of loving this infant Jesus. “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.”
Tradition states that Simeon was well-trained in Jewish law, literature, and scripture. He knew the prophecies about the Messiah who was to come and rescue Israel. Not only that, but the Holy Spirit had told Simeon that he would not die until he saw the Lord’s Christ. As the decades passed and Simeon grew older, he must have wondered if God would ever be faithful to his promise. Simeon was patient and never lost hope. Then, on the day Mary and Joseph presented Jesus at the temple, the Holy Spirit led Simeon to the temple as well. In the moment, a lifelong promise was fulfilled. Simeon took Jesus in his arms and blessed him.
Anna too knew about waiting. The nation of Israel had been waiting for 300 years for a Messiah. Anna was a prophetess, which is very rare in the Bible. She was not a fortune teller, but she was someone who spoke for God. She never left the temple where she worshiped night and day, and fasted and prayed. Anna was married for seven years before her husband died, and by the time Jesus was born, she had been a widow for more than 80 years, yet she never lost hope.
Simeon and Anna’s responses to seeing Jesus, however, couldn’t be more different. Simeon was prepared to die while Anna began to tell the good news to everyone in the Temple that the Messiah had finally appeared. Now, I don’t think that Simeon was giving up completely on this old world. He must have been overwhelmed by finally seeing the Messiah. Anna, on the other hand was so excited that she was ready to proclaim the hope of the Messiah to everyone she met. Having seen Jesus, they could not return to a normal life.
After nearly a year of living with the limitations of a pandemic we are all certainly waiting for life to return to normal. We’re all waiting for the vaccine to be readily available. We’re all waiting for schools to return to normal and concerts and plays to resume. Yes, we are all waiting for normal life to return. But in matters of faith, you shouldn’t be content to rush back to a normal if you haven’t learned something about yourself in the course of the pandemic-and what is truly important to you. And you shouldn’t rush back if you are not prepared to do something about it.
A few years back in California, when stealing the statue of Jesus from the manger at Christmas was a common college stunt, a preacher called the police, and told them: “We’ve just got to find that baby. He’s the only Jesus these people have ever known.” Of course, it’s sad, but it also too bad if that baby Jesus was the only Jesus that people had grown to know.
My friends, the message of Candlemas is that we all have a story of Jesus to tell. Regardless of your age, you too can share the good news of Jesus entering into our human story. That is why Simeon and Anna are so important to Jesus’s birth. You don’t have to be a pastor to confer a blessing on your family and friends. You don’t have to return to old the normal and pack away the Christmas decorations too early. After Simeon and Anna saw Jesus, they were no longer content with life’s normal patterns. They were prepared and open for so much more. Indeed, they were longing to be a part of sharing God’s greater plan for salvation. That can be your future as well. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.