I’m not sure what your Christmas day was like and whether you maintain habits from previous years to give a sense of security, certainty and belonging. Given my husband and I are immigrants to Australia from a colder, damper climate, the transfer of roast turkey with all the trimmings, plum pudding and a very hot oven into 30 plus degree Christmas days after the first year of our arrival, simply did not make sense. We now celebrate Christmas day with very different food rituals. However, it took the move to a new country for us to question what we did and have the willingness to change.
I also wonder what your faith rituals look like as you reflect on your sense of the larger reason for Christmas itself. Your family celebrations might include a carol service, attending midnight mass, a children’s service, or listening to carols on the radio or TV. As we ritualise and honour those special occasions, whether we realise it or not, we are turning towards a sense of mystery, awe, reverence and obedience.
We create rituals around the seasons of the year and around seasons of life: birth, coming of age, love, courtship and marriage, giving birth, growing old and dying. We create rituals and become loyal and obedient to them.
When we start coming to church and joining the family of faith, the rituals help us to know we belong. They provide security and comfort; they give us a sense of identity and belonging. They are critical to our sense of purpose which is why we become angry and resistant if anyone tries to change them. In our faith and worship rituals, they also become a way of expressing reverence, obedience and acknowledging God who evokes a sense of awe and respect in us: we are reverent in keeping the festivals, observing the rites and rituals and being faithful to them.
The story about the presentation of Jesus in the temple by Mary and Joseph, and the response of Simeon, a righteous and devout man and the prophet Anna all offer us a clear and distinctive description of their obedience to the law’s requirements (Luke 2:21-40). Mary and Joseph welcome and celebrate their belonging to God’s chosen people. Their commitment and delight in taking Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord was expressed in their honouring of the required rituals including circumcision after eight days, his naming, and:
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.” (Luke 2:23-24)
Luke is reminding us Mary and Joseph belonged to God’s chosen people. Jesus grew up in a faithful, Torah-observant family as a way of life. They honoured and treasured the rituals which expressed their obedience, belonging, identity and trust in God’s faithfulness. This meant Jesus grew up knowing and being obedient to God’s purposes in his family identity even though Jesus was also born as Saviour of all humankind and universal Lord.
This is the same for us as we share our understanding and joy of worship and service with family and friends. Our ways of living oriented towards God express our sense of belonging to God and our love for God. There is a delight in doing so, it is not a burden; it is an expression of joy, faithfulness, trust and hope.
Simeon is moved by the Holy Spirit to come to the temple courtyard at the very moment Mary and Joseph turn up to carry out their Torah-prescribed duties. Simeon holds Jesus in his arms as tangible evidence of the promise of salvation kept by God. Simeon’s words are sung as both prayer and prophecy. He spells out his belief in the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes of divine deliverance, the reason for the consolation of his people and the whole world, as well as welcoming his own release to a death in peace, all now imminent and happening.
Simeon expands God’s blessing to include all nations, all gentiles. In the spirit of the message of Second Isaiah: Israel’s vocation to bring blessing to the nations is being realized.
Anna, a prophet speaks about the hope of Israel, the long-awaited liberation abolishing all the barriers faced by the marginalized and the poor, which includes Jesus’ family; as they face ongoing ethnic, racial, social, political, economic and religious discrimination.
The world being what it is, economic, political and military systems being what they are, peace is a fragile promise, an elusive gift. God’s work of loving salvation, freeing and restoring a people and a world in peace, must overcome formidable resistance, transforming worldly powers and the cross imposed on the Messiah.
We live in the same world, one in which peace and justice remain as elusive as ever. Simeon and Anna are examples of true righteousness and obedience. In both cases, faithful obedience prepares them to recognise the ‘Lord’s Christ’ even though he is still a baby.
For Luke, such faithful obedience helps us to see where God is working, even when it is not obvious to others. Simeon and Anna, Mary and Joseph are among the pure in heart (Matt. 5:8), men and women whose obedience to God’s purposes enables them to ‘see God’ when those around them do not.
Obedience to God in this Gospel story, is not as we understand obedience in this world with the threat of punishment if we are not, but obedience experienced as loving and joyful commitment to God which is life-giving and life-changing, has led Simeon and Anna, Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah to this point as they wait on God’s plans through the Holy Spirit.
Simeon celebrates God’s promise being fulfilled, in the ‘Song of Simeon’.
Master, you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
We are offered such peace through salvation and Simeon is completely overwhelmed and absorbed by this experience of obedient love. Like Simeon and Anna, it is as if we have been completely and utterly seized in and by love, living in the light of God’s love for everyone, living in the light of a power greater even than our fear of death, living in the communion of shalom, God’s peace.
Jesus’ love for all people and being obedient to God, leads him into a struggle against oppression resulting in his crucifixion. As God’s love made flesh, with utter faithfulness and obedience to God’s love, Jesus shows as God’s Son, peasant, prophet, Messiah and Anointed One, the power of love surpasses all the powers of the world, and through love, God’s Shalom transcends understanding, even fear of death.
This is ‘the light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it; (John 1:5), because ‘nothing will be impossible with God’. (Luke 1:37)
The Lord be with you.