A man named Simeon was in Jerusalem. He was righteous and devout. He eagerly anticipated the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. The Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Led by the Spirit, he went into the temple area. Meanwhile, Jesus’ parents brought the child to the temple so that they could do what was customary under the Law. Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised God. He said, “Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word, because my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.” His father and mother were amazed by what was said about him. Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your innermost being too.”
Painting in my home of Jesus presented in the Temple
“Simeon was looking at a baby no more than 6 weeks old. He was also looking at eternity. By the power of the Holy Spirit, Simeon saw it all. The cross. The grave. The resurrection. Yet another confession of faith, spoken three decades before the start of Christ’s earthly ministry.”
-Liz Curtis Higgs, The Women of Christmas
I’m not usually a fan of scary movies, but one of my favorites is the Sixth Sense. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a troubled little boy who has a dark secret: he can see and talk to dead people who walk around in his life like normal people. They do not know they are dead, but they all seem to want something from him. He is befriended by a child psychiatrist who sets out to help him. Together, they try to come up with ways for the little boy to deal with this problem that has taken over his life. I won’t ruin the ending for you if you haven’t seen it already, but it is definitely one of those shocking twist endings that you won’t forget. It’s one of those movies where once you find out how it ends, you want to go back and look for the clues that you may have missed before, that if you had noticed them, you may have seen it coming.
Movies (or stories) like that are usually the best kind. They keep you in suspense, and you don’t know what will happen next. I’m one of those people that even if I have a guess, I would still be upset if someone ruined it for me- I want to see for myself how it’s going to end. Sometimes I wonder, if I knew the end of the story, would I still want to watch it unfold? Maybe, maybe not. Or if I know that a movie has a sad or violent ending, would I still want to watch it? Usually, but I have to be in the right mood or at least prepare myself for a story that doesn’t have a happily ever after.
Most of us, in our human way, do not want to know if something bad is coming, or we shy away from challenges if we see them coming our way. If we know something will be difficult, we tend to look for an easier way forward. When Mary and Joseph meet this mysterious man, Simeon, in the temple, he lays it all out there for them, and doesn’t give them a lot of choice in the way their story will unfold. In a way, he gives away the ending of their story, and leaves them to decide how they will face the rest of their lives, knowing that with Jesus, their son, it will not be easy.
Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple to do what is required of them by the law, which was to present their son, offer sacrifices to God, and for Mary to participate in a ritual cleansing after giving birth. They acted and were treated like any other Jewish family with a newborn child. According to the law of Leviticus, Mary would have been considered unclean for 7 days after childbirth, and then in a state of blood purification for 33 days. Jesus would have been circumcised and given his name on the eighth day. Mary was then not to touch anything holy or enter a sacred area until her purification was complete. If a woman gave birth to a girl, her purification time was twice as long! (That doesn’t quite seem fair!) When her time was complete, Mary was to bring a sacrifice: a one year old lamb as a burnt offering and a pigeon or turtledove as a purification offering to the priest at the entrance of the Holy of Holies in the temple. If a woman could not afford a sheep, she could bring two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for the burnt offering and one for the purification offering. We are told that Mary brought two doves or pigeons. Just think of it: she could not afford a sacrificial lamb, yet in her arms she carried the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. Mary was humble, but she was not ashamed. She brought what she could. God asks for no more than that (Higgs, Women of Christmas, 149).
As Mary and Jesus waited in the Court of Women, Joseph would have delivered her sacrifice to the priest. Mary was a small town girl, a poor woman with an infant child, and probably not used to the crowds of the holy temple courts in Jerusalem. She might have gone unnoticed as Joseph rejoined his family. Maybe they breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that they could return home to Galilee and go on with their lives. But there was one man in the temple that day had who had waited a lifetime to meet Jesus, and this was his time.
We are not told too much about Simeon- not his tribe, his background, positon, or family status. We do know that he is righteous, devout, waiting for the restoration of Israel, and that the Holy Spirit rested upon him. He was in tune with God’s voice and presence in his life, and he eagerly awaited the time when God would send peace and light into the world. Jesus looked like any other child, yet the Spirit opened Simeon’s eyes and heart to see Jesus for who he was: the Christ, the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed. It was by the power of the Spirit that Simeon knew this child and was able to speak with truth, blessing, joy, and hopeful hesitation over the challenging message he shared with Mary and Joseph.
He took Jesus in his arms as he shared his song and praise to God for the gift before him. Simeon proclaims that because of this child, his eyes have beheld salvation not just for some, but for all, for this child will be a light to both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews). Because he has now seen this child, Simeon will go live in peace for the rest of his days, knowing that his purpose has been fulfilled. He then blessed the child and his parents and turned to Mary with words that no mother would really want to hear: that her child will be the cause of the falling and rising of many, and will be a sign that generates opposition and conflict. Because of Jesus, the true thoughts of many will be revealed. And finally, he tells her that a sword will pierce her innermost being as well.
One of my favorite Jewish traditions is the Hebrew naming and blessing of a new child. During a worship service, the new parents bring the child forward to be blessed by the Rabbi and given a Hebrew name. It is a way of welcoming the child into the Jewish community and to receive a blessing from God for his or her lifetime. This ritual is somewhat similar to our sacrament of baptism, but has a somewhat different meaning and does not include water. The child is given their Hebrew name, which will be used to call the child to the Torah for his or her bar or bat mitzvah later in life, and gives a significant meaning to the family’s involvement in the Jewish faith. This is always a joyful and happy moment in the life of the Jewish community, and cause for celebration.
Simeon’s blessing for Jesus, however, was not meant to be necessarily uplifting or happy. In his song, Simeon summed up the story of Jesus: his life, ministry, death, and resurrection. And none of it was going to be easy. How must have Mary felt upon hearing these words? And what did it mean that a sword will pierce her innermost being? She was the mother of Jesus, after all. She had already overcome a mysterious conception and birth, and now faces a challenging world as a new mother, unsure of what the future would hold for her child. And now this message that she will be deeply affected by the opposition and challenges that Jesus will face in his lifetime.
The sword that would pierce her being could mean many things. It could be seen as the struggle that Mary might face in accepting the teachings of Jesus, his ministry, and the form it will take. The sword could mean her impending grief over the cross and the death that Jesus would suffer. It could mean that the whole of Jesus’ life would pierce her soul to the point that she would never be the same again. That’s what it means to be a parent, isn’t it? To love someone so much that you would do anything for them, yet knowing that at some point you have to let them go to become who they were meant to be, no matter how painful it might be for you?
But Mary knew that Jesus came from God, and really belonged to God from the beginning. However, it still did not make it easy for her to hear these words- that the life and ministry of her son would pierce her soul and the souls of many who would either love him, oppose him, or even put him to death. Just as Mary was the first to hear the good news of Jesus’ coming birth and his true identity, Simeon’s song is used to make Mary the first person to hear the not so good news of the opposition that Jesus’ teachings will evoke and of the divisions it will inspire among the people.
I might be showing my age here, but I did not learn until recently that Alberta King, the mother of Martin Luther King, Jr., was also assassinated 6 years after the death of her son as she played the organ at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
The 23 year old African American man who shot and killed her said he did it because he believed that all Christians were his enemies and that black ministers were a menace to black people. We learned all about Martin Luther King, Jr., his teachings, his courage, his bravery, and his death in school. But we never heard a word about his mother who helped raise him and teach him the values that he preached and used to lead a revolution for civil rights in our country. Alberta worked hard to instill self-respect and respect for others in her children. Martin once wrote of her that she “was behind the scenes setting forth those motherly cares, the lack of which leaves a missing link in life.” She was a source of strength for many after the assassination of her son and faced fresh tragedy the year following Martin’s death when her youngest son, Alfred, drowned in his pool.
Talk about a family who faced one tragedy upon another, yet had such a significant impact on the progression of justice and civil rights in the United States. I couldn’t help but wonder what Alberta must have been feeling as she watched her son preach such a strong and divisive message at the time, putting his life and safety on the line again and again. He suffered beatings, jail time, strong opposition, and eventually, death. As she watched Martin grow up, did she know how it would end? Did she see things in him that helped her prepare for the tough road ahead? Did she know that her son was the one to lead a revolution for change and give hope to millions of people? I don’t know too much about Alberta, but it seems to me that she had the courage and strength to raise up a son who was not afraid to go out and change the world, even in the face of opposition, violence, and the threat of harm- all in the name of justice and mercy for all persons in the name of Jesus, regardless of the color of their skin.
Alberta King had a difficult and tragic life that came to a tragic end. In many ways, she reminds me of Mary, who knew early on that her son would set out to change the world, but it would not be easy. And she would be the one to offer strength and support along the way, while having the faith to stand by and let Jesus go out and minister to a broken world. This is what Simeon’s blessing and song tells Mary and can teach us today. That in the unfolding story of Jesus, there is hope, salvation, and peace, yet there is also a challenge to stand up to the brokenness and divisiveness in the world. Simeon tells Mary in his difficult words that she must not be afraid of what Jesus will teach, preach, and do for the world. It is difficult, but it is necessary in order for the world to change. Change only happens when passion, courage, and sacrifice are the driving forces. With Simeon’s help, Mary began to prepare for this and to understand it in light of her infant son.
We will all be faced with swords in our own lives that will pierce our souls. Whether it is a difficult diagnosis, a job loss, the death of a loved one, addiction, disease, heartache, or the beginning a new journey where we know that it will not be easy. Advent reminds us that having faith isn’t about having all of the right answers or living a perfect life without challenges, flaws, or mistakes. It’s about remembering that God comes to us in the midst of our brokenness to show us a better way. Simeon blessed the child Jesus and spoke truths to his parents that were difficult to hear. In the same way, God blesses us, speaks a word of peace, and whispers that this life is not always going to be easy, and yet there is hope and salvation there for the taking. We must have faith and believe in it, even when divisions surround us and life does not unfold the way that we expect or want.
Simeon, upon taking Jesus in his arms, knew he was holding the hope and salvation for all people, and he had been waiting for this moment his entire life. Woody Allen once said, “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Well, Simeon was about there, and he faced death without fear. He’d prepared for this moment and was now ready to leave this world as he looked upon the face of his Savior. Simeon felt God’s perfect peace in this moment, knowing that the world was in good hands. My question is, do we have faith that the world in fact, is in good hands? If not, how can we offer God’s blessing upon this broken world and find the courage to love, to change, and to transform it? And how can we face head on the swords that pierce our own souls? With God’s help, may it be so. And may God grant us grace and courage to face the world out there unafraid, that we may find the faith of Mary, the peace of Simeon, and the transforming love of Jesus Christ during this holy season. Amen.