“Coming from the Edges”
December 27, 2020
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 turtle-doves 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 for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped 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.
The Good News from Luke chapter 2 features people who know what it is to get sent to the edges and yet find blessing.
The context is forty days after the announcement of Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph travel about 6 miles up the road from Bethlehem to the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus was Jewish. He grew up just like any other observant Jew, with all the tradition and rituals that went with it. He had been circumcised on the eighth day after his birth and was on that day “named” Jesus, not before.
On the fortieth day they go to the temple so that Mary can be declared purified. They also have to offer Jesus up as a sacrifice. Now the Temple was an institution that enforced laws separating the holy from the profane, the clean from the unclean. In this context, being unclean has to do with a mixing together of life and death.
On this day in our story, Joseph and Mary bring two birds as a sacrifice, which was allowed if the parents were unable to afford a sheep. And this offering marks the shift for Mary. She was ritually unclean in the weeks after giving birth, now with this, she is considered clean. But here when the holy family comes out from the edges of Bethlehem to the center of Jerusalem, what happens is they get confronted by two prophets, Simeon and Anna.
Anna is someone who has been pushed to the edges, yet this is no deterrent to her ministry. Anna is at least eighty-four years old, and she never leaves the Temple area. As a woman, she’s made to stay in the outer courts. Anna fasts and prays night and day. But when Mary and Joseph arrive with their baby, Anna spring into action. She takes one look at this baby, and Anna knows. She begins praising God and prophesying about this baby.
Simeon’s age is not mentioned, but he is said to be a very old man and not far from death. He has been waiting for years to see Messiah. The Holy Spirit rests upon Simeon. Here this old man approaches this teenage mother with her infant son; he takes one look at that baby, and Simeon knows.
Then Simeon takes the baby into his crooked, strong arms, and he does the only thing he can. He praises God with the song that has become famous: “Now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation…”
In the next moment when Simeon hands the baby back to Mary, he leans in and says to her, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that will be opposed so the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”
This baby, who is a sign of glad tidings of great joy for all the people is named here, by this old man, as a sign that will be opposed. It seems like an odd blessing, but Simeon is right. He looks at Mary, and says “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” It is as if the divider between the safety of life and mystery of death is removed.
The story of Simeon and Anna is the mixing of life and death. My illustration may be a little thin here, but it is the best I can do from my own edge. I am thinking of the velvet ropes that cue people in the theater lobby. Those velvet ropes get latched to shiny metal pillars. Right here in Luke’s story of Simeon’s blessing of baby Jesus at the Temple the rope divider becomes unhooked; the boundary between life and death gets crossed. Death pours into life, and new life answers all death. Heaven and earth spill into each other, and Simeon sees this baby, the sign that will be opposed and put to death is actually a sign of life. Simeon, a dying man who pronounces a blessing gets a glimpse of the light of salvation. He holds a newborn baby and sees that one day he will die too soon.
In her book Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor encourages all of us to try our hand at this practice of pronouncing blessing. She writes this, “The key to blessing things is knowing they beat you to it. The key to blessing things is to receive their blessing.” Now if she’s right about this, then Simeon is not the only one handing out blessing.
Here this old man gets blessed by the baby he is holding. He gets blessed by this young mother whose soul will get pierced by a sword. Blessing is the work that unhinges the respectable divider and crosses the boundary between heaven and earth, death, and life. Just try holding a baby sometime and see if you do not get blessed.
The good news is that our work as the Church is to pronounce the blessing, because we can be at the edges just like Mary and Simeon, Joseph and Anna and know the blessings we receive. We have already heard the news that we know is not true: Just because you are on the margins does not mean you are forgotten or alone. There is no segregation which can separate you from the love of God.
We who are the church, come from the edges, wherever it is we find ourselves separated, to do the work of blessing that takes down the dividers. We know that heaven and earth spill into each other and that by God’s saving power, the signs of death keep getting turned into the unmistakable signs of life.
 Taylor, Barbara Brown. Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. HarperCollins: New York, 2009 p. 196.