Luke 2:22-40

Marc Chagall was described as “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century”. He was born in Russia in 1887, and lived through difficult times, having fled Russia to Paris he then had to flee again during the Second World War. As an early modernist artist he drew on the Jewish insights of his youth. Surprisingly, to me anyway, he uses figures from Christianity in his paintings, not least that of Christ, often a crucified Christ, in his paintings. This is so surprising, shocking even, when we remember that for many Jewish people the cross symbolized Christian oppression. I’m told that Chagall did this to enable his paintings to act as icons of the struggle and suffering in the world.

In 1950 he painted The Nativity. As well as the mother and Christ child he also painted Christ crucified on the other side of the picture. It’s unusual, but represents much of the importance of what today’s gospel reading is all about, which I’ll explain further in a moment. This picture represents the tensions that many of us hold – the struggle between life and death, and hope and fear, of humanity and inhumanity, of justice and injustice.

This week began with Holocaust Memorial Day, remembering six millions Jews who died between 1933 and 1945, along with five million gay people, gypsies, Poles, Russians, communists, and disabled people. This evening we celebrate Christ’s presentation at the temple, and so the emotions of the week have reflected the tension between life and death and the struggle between suffering and hope.

When we know them so well, the stories of the birth and death of Christ are stories many of us don’t listen to, switching off because we know them well. The presentation of Christ in the temple is one perhaps we don’t so well. It must have been a happy time for the family – a child safely born and a time for celebration, but into this occasion comes the reality of death and suffering. Into the happy story of a visit to the temple to celebrate, comes a warning that a sword would pierce Mary’s soul.

Colm Toibin wrote a book ‘The Testament of Mary’ in which he portrayed Mary looking back on the events of Jesus’ last days from her later years. Like all mothers, the fact that she’d carried him in her womb and nursed him as a child defines how she saw this man. As she remembers watching his crucifixion she says;
“He was the boy I had given birth to and he was more defenceless now than he had been then. And in those days after he was born, when I held him and watched him, my thoughts included the thought that I would have someone now to watch over me when I was dying, to look after my body when I had died. In those days if I had even dreamed that I would see him bloody… I would have cried out as I cried out that day and the cry would have come from a part of me that is the core of me.”

Some struggle with Toibin’s approach to Mary, but what he’s doing is exploring and developing the question of how women watch their children suffer.

Here in the temple, as Jesus is presented into this picture of a family celebration and the reality of death and suffering draw close – this is the reality for many of us. The threat of suffering and death over-shadows the road of life. But into this struggle breaks the light of hope, and Simeon saw in that small child that God became, a real human being taking on our humanity – why?

Simeon’s song proclaims that into this reality of death and darkness the light of God has come. Simeon’s song proclaims that into the tapestry of life into which is woven the reality of the struggles of life and death and suffering, the hope, the light of Christ has dawned.

Simeon and Anna invite us to be people of hope. Hope is not about optimism, it is about a conviction concerning the future which leaps into our present in such a way that we feel secure in the here.

We hope for a future where God’s kingdom is in full, we hope for eternal life in which there is no more death and dying. Hope is stored up for us in heaven, and while it breaks into our present, it is something that we wait patiently to see in full.

What we have, in a sense, is hardly more than Simeon and Anna had. We have the scriptures that give us hope. We have stories and covenants and signs. We have moments, or the memory of moments, when the tender compassion of our God has come close enough to see and feel. We have the hope – hope that one day death will be finally overcome and that there will be a new creation. Hope is that which holds us when we are living in the shadow of suffering and death. It is hope which holds us in the face of eleven million deaths during the Holocaust; it is a hope which holds us in the face of the death and suffering in our own lives.

So as we turn from the birth of Christ, the Christmas season towards the Cross and Lent, let us see the image of the Christ child and the Cross and know that both are woven together to give us hope of what is to come, which has broken into our present.

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