First Sunday After Christmas (Year B)
TEXTS: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will give. (Isaiah 62:1-2)
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. (Galatians 4:4-5)
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 turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’ Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon … (Luke 2:22-25a)
The three lectionary readings for today have their own kind of connectedness. What connects them, for me, is the theme of time—or of God acting in time, acting in history.
Our reading from Isaiah looks forward to a time when Jerusalem—and the Jewish people—shall be redeemed, and rescued from exile and suffering; vindicated, and given a new name, just as brides (and many of them still do it) receive on their wedding day a new name, and begin a new life.
In our gospel reading, Simeon and Anna are inheritors of the prophet’s hope. Their visions, too, are filled with assurances of salvation—of God fulfilling his promises in the sphere of history and time.
And Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, ties it all together, saying that God sent his Son “in the fullness of time.” Why? “To redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” of God.
The promise which is fulfilled in Christ is much bigger than Isaiah could have imagined—though Simeon appeared to catch a glimpse of its greatness. He took the baby Jesus 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.”
(Luke 2:29-32; also see Isaiah 52:10; 9:2; 42:6; 49:6)
Our readings for today challenge us to ponder their meanings—to examine them for clues about how we are to live in this world of time, and about how we can make sense of our often-frightening existence within human history.
We do not know enough about Joseph and Mary to understand their politics, but the gospel accounts indicate to us how greatly they were affected by the political acts of governors and kings.
Can we read about their flight into Egypt and not be reminded of the slaughter of the Holy Innocents? Matthew tells that sad story in chapter two of his gospel. Enraged that the Wise Men had tricked him, King Herod ordered the murder of all the male children in the region of Bethlehem. Every boy of two years or younger was killed, as Herod tried to eliminate his rival. Mary, Joseph, and the child, however, were safe in Egypt, where they had fled as refugees to escape Herod’s wrath.
What a horrible story, you may say. It could never happen like that in our time, you might think. But the ongoing destruction of innocents in the Gaza Strip—which the UN has dubbed “a graveyard for children”—proves otherwise.*
Today, many people who are in political and spiritual exile need our help—or else they shall remain outcasts and strangers. In every Canadian city, thousands of homeless street people live in a world of mental anguish. Without family or friends, they lack the sense of purpose and accomplishment that community life provides.
Time is empty without the sense of belonging given by family life. Yet families—even the best—are messy realities, and the history of Jesus’ family is not complete; it is still being written—in our time, in our lives. However, examining the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus can create for us—in our time—the intention and the space to love.
We can pray that every task we share and every event that overtakes us will be accomplished in mutual and loving acceptance. But we must be willing to labour for the kind of harmony and understanding that existed between Joseph and Mary.
The intimacy and love this couple shared included the temple community and the elderly—even “fringe people” like Simeon and Anna. Their intimacy and love were also challenged by enemies who sought their child’s life.
Home is clearly no refuge from the world, yet, when all was said and done, they returned to Nazareth in Galilee, where, Luke tells us, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.”
Notice that? The child’s obedience and love are the working of God’s will—the beginning of salvation, not its reward. Christ was born in time as a helpless infant, who had to be loved and cared for, and who had to learn everything: how to walk, how to talk, how to live in this material world. Jesus grew as every human child grows—within human history, and within the dimension of time. He had to become who he would be, just as we have to. Our salvation—whatever that means for each one of us—is revealed in time. Those who say that life is a journey are quite correct.
The birthday of Jesus points to his baptism. The incarnation points to the cross and resurrection. And the resurrection points toward our own future as children of God—a future that will come to pass for each one of us “in the fullness of time,” as we journey on in God’s presence.
Holy days—like this Christmas which has just passed—are meant to be days filled with rejoicing and feasting. The Word of the Lord has gone forth, and we are on the brink of release.
But release to what? Release for what? Those are answers which each one of us must find for his or her own self. Those are answers which will only be revealed as time reaches its fulfillment.
Even as Mary and Joseph went up to the temple to do for Jesus what was customary under the law, so also we are called to praise God, to stand before the Lord in ways that are fitting and right. It is our portion, our share in the salvation that is to be from God, the source of our willingness to be reconciled to one another.
Let us pray for time enough to do all that is required, in order that we may grow in age and in wisdom and in God’s favour. Amen.
For those of you who may be planning worship for the First Sunday After Christmas, I offer this Recessional Hymn (set to a tune you’ll all recognize):
Song of Simeon
Tune: WINCHESTER OLD (“While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks”)
Now we, God’s servants, shall depart
in everlasting peace;
Our eyes have seen salvation’s hope,
our hearts are now at ease.
God has prepared a radiant Light
the darkness to dispel,
to lead the nations in His ways
and shine on Israel.