Whenever I stand by the font, holding a baby that’s either damply smiling or damply screaming, I now tend to think about when we stood at the font with Joanna for her baptism. Only after that did I really understand the anxiety every parent has that they might not behave as I wanted, the joy at showing them to the friends and family who lived too far away to have visited earlier, the gratitude to God as I recognised the gift that Joanna represented.
Taking her into God’s house was, for me, very important in marking the beginning of her faith journey, formally, and I was glad for her to be recognised as part of God’s family, and greeted by name. My memories of that day are overwhelmingly joyful…there were no bad fairies or grimly prophetic greybeards speaking words of ambiguity over the cradle.
But it wasn’t that way for Mary, was it?
First, came the darkness of her pregnancy, with the very real possibility that she would, according to the Law of Moses, be stoned to death for breaking her betrothal to Joseph.
Later, there was the uncertainty surrounding her son’s birth, a down-and-out amid the muddle and muckheaps of the stable. It seems unlikely that her anxieties were in any way allayed by the arrival of the ruffian shepherds with their tales of angel song. Perhaps as she and Joseph took the child to be presented in the Temple when he was forty days old, they hoped that in following the demands and traditions of every Jewish family they would be able once again to blend into the background, to return to normal, to finally escape the risk of being remarkable.
So they went to join the crowds, and add their own gratitude for safe delivery to the chorus of prayers and intercessions that filled the Temple.
Among the crowds they were nothing special. Unable to afford the richer sacrifices, they made do with only the basic offering of two turtledoves.
There was nothing to mark out this little family as they made their way into the Temple courts, but nonetheless, they were noticed by two others, just as ordinary in themselves, but they had been there many years waiting to recognise God’s presence in the everyday.
It’s tempting to set the scene in soft-focus, to air-brush out anything dark or threatening, to turn Simeon and Anna into some kind of proxy grandparents, blessing the infant Jesus with words of soothing benediction.
But that would be missing the point.
Of course there is joy and wonder as Simeon recognises the One for whom he has waited, the One who will change everything. “Lord, now let your servant go in peace. Your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen your salvation…” He has waited for so long and, being human, he probably despaired at times. Would the promised Saviour ever truly arrive? Had he really heard God speak, and could God’s word be trusted?
Whatever his feelings, he kept on waiting faithfully like all those who remain true to their experience of God, even in the times when God seems silent or absent.
But you don’t need me to tell you that recognising the Christ rarely leads to an easier life. It will be richer, full of purpose, brimming over with hope, but easy, on the whole, no.
I wonder if Simeon was tempted to suppress the vision that he had received, to focus on the joy of recognition, to bask in the light that reveals God to the nations.
It must have been hard to assume the role of skeleton at the feast, to introduce a jarring note into the songs of thankfulness, and praise that seemed more apt to greet a baby at his dedication. But Simeon was a man of integrity, a man who knew that there was no point in trying to paper over the cracks, reality must be faced.
It’s a bittersweet reality, of course, which is reflected in the festival’s position on the border between Christmas tide and the Lenten journey towards Holy Week. God’s salvation will be costly, not only for Jesus, but also for those who love him. So, instead of offering Mary congratulations on her fine boy, Simeon greets her with those words of mystery and foreboding “a sword shall pierce your soul also”. I wonder if she remembered them as she stood at the foot of the cross weeping?
Right now, though, like Mary we stand at a cross roads, not yet moving down the new path ahead. We know something of what lies ahead for that baby though we may wish we could shut our eyes to it.
The darkness and death that will be overcome by his resurrection have first to have their way in his own life. They are part of the reality that we all face, the pain that we would like to turn away from. It’s much easier to look back to coo over the baby in the manger than to risk having our own hearts broken, as Mary’s must have been. So we try to make the story of his birth a tinsel celebration, but to do this risks rendering Him meaningless, though never powerless, in our own experiences of disappointment and disaster. This poem, by Steve Turner, expresses the balancing act, the dance between reality and whitewash, that we so often attempt:
Christmas is really
for the children.
Especially for children
who like animals, stables,
stars and babies wrapped
in swaddling clothes.
Then there are wise men,
kings in fine robes,
humble shepherds and a
hint of rich perfume.
Easter is not really
for the children
unless accompanied by
a cream filled egg.
It has whips, blood, nails,
a spear and allegations
of body snatching.
It involves politics, God
and the sins of the world.
It is not good for people
of a nervous disposition.
They would do better to
think on rabbits, chickens
and the first snowdrop
Or they’d do better to
wait for a re-run of
Christmas without asking
too many questions about
what Jesus did when he grew up
or whether there’s any connection.
The presentation of Jesus in the Temple invites us to stand at the point where Christmas and Easter can both be seen to acknowledge that the God of stardust and surprises is also the God of cross, whips and nails. Today invites us to look for him not just in the times of joy and celebration, nor even in the commonplace comings and goings of the crowds in the Temple, but also in the places of dereliction when we feel a sword piercing our own hearts also.
Piercing will hurt, of course it will, and Simeon’s words must have been both strange and unwelcome to Mary as she carried her precious son into the Temple of his heavenly Father, but pain, no less than joy, is what makes us human. More, it is in the wounded and the broken hearted that we most often recognise the presence of God.
Canadian Jewish songwriter Leonard Cohen said:
Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
And the light that gets in will also, of course, shine out, through all the fractures of our broken hearts. So let that light, the light of God’s presence, shine through your experiences of joy and of pain, be transformed by it. It is the light that reveals God to the nations, and the glory of his people, Israel.