By Barry Pollard
(Based on Luke 2:22-40)
The theme that sprung out in reading Luke’s account of the presentation of Jesus at the temple was “anticipation”. Reading deeper and dwelling upon the narrative, I realised it was a little more than that – more like “patient waiting”.
Any child, and any of us young at heart, will be able to tell about anticipation. Growing up, the excitement of Christmas began to build from the time we changed out of our winter school uniforms and we changed to our summer sports. That meant we were nearly finished with school and it would soon be Christmas. Holidays, swimming, roaming free, summer antics, then presents! This prolonged anticipation was a very pleasant and motivated state indeed. The build-up was relentless and the childhood excitement exponential!
Having just celebrated Christmas, we probably all remember, or experienced again, some of those childhood anticipatory elements. In a sense the season of Christmas has had its climax and we are sliding gently out the other end of it. That was how I was approaching this reflection until I started my research and in-depth reflective reading.
Jesus had been born in humble circumstances in Bethlehem. His parents, Mary and Joseph, took him to the temple on the eighth day to be circumcised, as was expected under Mosaic law, and was the custom. At this time he was named Jesus, the name given to Mary by the angel before she conceived.
Now, in keeping with other laws, the couple showed up at the temple to complete the purification rites expected forty days after the birth. The purification included the presentation of a boy child at the temple to be dedicated to the Lord. Sacrifice was required to accompany the dedication and, depending on wealth, a range of animals could be offered, from a one-year old lamb to turtle-doves and pigeons. Joseph and Mary offered a pair of birds, speaking to the humble life into which Jesus had been born.
And in the story of Luke’s Gospel today, this is where I got hooked. In the background, perhaps lurking, was an old man. He was a constant temple inhabitant, known for his righteousness and devotion, showing up daily to wait. For a very long time this man, Simeon, had been waiting to see the Messiah born. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would live until he had witnessed this event. So, day after day he watched and waited, looking upon each child presented at the temple with expectation and anticipation.
To get a sense of the level of anticipation I expect Simeon to have experienced, we may be helped by this: According to tradition in the Orthodox Churches, Simeon had been one of the seventy-two translators of the Greek Old Testament. At one point he hesitated over the translation of Isaiah 7:14 (“Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.”) and was going to alter it to “woman will conceive”. An angel appeared to him and told him that he would not die until he had seen the Christ born of a virgin. This would make him well over two hundred years old at the time of the meeting described in Luke, and therefore miraculously long-lived.
The point of this is that Simeon was very old and had been waiting in anticipation for a very long time!
Consider this: Simeon had been promised that he would see the Messiah, the Christ, and that promise had been made many, many years before it was fulfilled. Simeon must have lived those days, years, decades perhaps even centuries with hope, trust, expectation, and anticipation. Every day for weeks, months, years, decades, yes even centuries, Simeon would have been left waiting and wondering. “Is this the day? Is this the day I will see salvation? Is this the day I will experience the fulfilment of the promise?”
I can’t see Simeon pondering the negative. I don’t think he doubted the angel’s revelation.
Simeon’s life was one of expectation, anticipation, and waiting. And most of us have had times in our lives characterised by expectation, anticipation, and waiting, in the same way. We’ve likely all stood in that place waiting for and needing something to happen, living in expectation and hope, anticipating the future, and wondering if today was the day.
Our stories may differ from Simeon’s at this point: It may have been that we, too, got up each morning but then had to decide whether we still believed in God’s future or whether we would give up.
We all know what it’s like to wait: waiting for life to change, for the grief to go away, for a prayer to be answered, for joy to return, for forgiveness and reconciliation, for clarity about a decision, for meaning and purpose, for healing and new life. And this is what our family is waiting on today – our expected grandson is being induced tomorrow due to intrauterine health complications. We wait and hope for all sorts of things.
We have all sorts of hopes and expectations for what God is doing in our lives and our world. I think we are all here with some hope, some need, some expectation. We come trusting and anticipating the promise that God is present and working in our lives even if we can’t see or clearly understand what that might be. So we show up and we wait for the answers. Just like Simeon did.
For all those years Simeon continued to show up. He continued to be vigilant and attentive. He continued to trust the promise. He continued to wait with hope and expectation. He never despaired. He never walked away from the promise. I see the miracle for Simeon, and for us, is in the showing up.
Sometimes showing up is the most difficult work we do and it takes all we have to just show up. But it’s always the question before us. Will we continue to show up? Will we be awake and vigilant? Will we live with hope and trust? Showing up is the means through which God fulfils the promise to us and to Simeon.
Simeon thought he was waiting for the child to show up, but what if it was really the other way round, Jesus waiting for Simeon to show up? Simeon thought he was presenting the child to God, but what if it was really the child presenting the old man to God? Every day that Simeon showed up, the child Jesus was seeing and upholding Simeon.
So, it should be, perhaps, that no matter what, we continue to show up. This might let Jesus see us and uphold us!