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Let’s be honest, the Sunday after Christmas does feel like a bit of a letdown, doesn’t it? We’ve unwrapped the presents, eaten most of the leftovers, and some of us have the daunting task of taking all the Christmas decorations down. We have both pain and anticipation around the new year. The excitement from Christmas has worn off, and we brace ourselves for getting back to the routine. For students, this means back to school.
But for Mary and Joseph, the struggles had only begun. After a long and excruciating journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, well over 100 miles, Mary birthed Jesus in a barn. That question people ask when we leave the door open, or when we chew with our mouth open: “Where you born in a barn?”
Jesus could answer simply, yes.
A couple of weeks ago, in children’s Sunday school, we imagined what that must have felt like to be born in a barn. What did it smell like? Not pleasant, we thought. Animals live in barns, and do their animal business in barns. It was a great place to have a baby.
I imagine Jesus’ first few weeks were not as peaceful and happy as we’d like to think. We picture of Christmas of this peaceful and glorious time, where everyone gazes lovingly upon the newborn Jesus, but if we were the characters in the story today, we would have been afraid, scared, and confused.
We read in Matthew’s gospel that Herod wanted to kill all the male babies under 2. Mary and Joseph may have recalled the stories they heard about Exodus, where the Hebrew midwives lied to the Egyptians, saying that Hebrew women were too strong and birthed too quickly, so that the male children did not die. Mary and Joseph could only hope their son would be spared like Moses.
Like all good Jews, the parents trudge their way to the temple in Jerusalem to present an offering for Jesus. Mary and Joseph enter the temple, tired and weary. Jesus, contrary to “Away in a Manger” carol, presented as an ordinary baby who did, in fact, cry. Between their travels to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus, they felt beyond exhausted. I imagine they entered more like zombies as they stumbled into the temple.
A young couple, they did not have much. Instead of bringing a sheep, they brought 2 doves for the sacrifice. Common birds. Associated with a peasant. Or a refugee.
The temple was busy, with people murmuring their prayers, and lines forming for the sacrifices. Yet this ritual, which we might see as akin to infant dedication today, was welcomed by the couple. In the temple, they stood on an equal playing field with their fellow worshipers—no longer were they the young couple who gave birth in a barn. They were Jewish, presenting their baby for circumcision.
But something seemed weird that day. This man stopped them—Simeon was his name. Many paintings portray him as old, but the scriptures don’t give an age to him, only saying that he was religious and devout.
I imagine Simeon as sort of an odd duck. People who are depicted as “devout” usually are. He was the one you could always count on at the synagogue. The one who was always there on the feast days, the major holidays and the minor ones, the one who would ask questions from the scribes, and mouth the prayers along with the priests. And whether it was the spirit of the times, or the Holy Spirit, Simeon somehow believed that he would see the Messiah in flesh before his death. This was, perhaps considered weird among the other folks at the synagogue. They had heard similar yearnings before, never to come to fruition.
Simeon peeked at the newborn. Mary did not know Simeon as he gestured to take her baby, nor did he ask her if he could hold Jesus. Can you imagine how Mary felt?
But Mary, though new, had that mother’s intuition, and perhaps, longed for relief. When Simeon held out his hands, she placed Jesus in his arms. Simeon stared at Jesus’ face, rocking him in his arms. And then Simeon began saying these weird things. Great things, and not so great things.
Great things—her son, this tiny squirmy baby, would be the salvation to the Gentiles. This was the first time the Gentiles—non Jewish people—would be included in this salvation history. He, this seven day old baby, is the promise of Israel, he, this squirmy, crying baby, would be a light to the nations. This baby in his arms.
But Simeon also said some upsetting things that left Mary confused. This tiny baby as a Savior would also bring pain and heartbreak, and cause trouble among the nations. This baby would cause her pain. I wonder if Luke knew when he was penning those words that this would still ring true today.
So when Simeon finished speaking, and handed back Jesus to Mary and Joseph, I imagine they were somewhat in shock, stunned and confused. Who was this guy, anyway? Where did he come from? And What would happen to their baby?
Not long afterward, an old woman wondered toward them. Luke identifies her as the prophet Anna. She, like Simeon, had no children. She, like Simeon, was also an odd duck. After her husband died, she sought her vocation in the temple, praying and and speaking words of truth. The temple had become her family when she had none—the priests were like her sons, the congregants were like her siblings, the children that celebrated their bar mitzvahs like her grandchildren. When these families came, they may have brought Anna some special food. She would greet them with hugs and remember their birthdays. Today, we might think of her as a nun, attached to a church, or the favorite aunt in a family.
Unlike Simeon, Luke doesn’t record her words. Unlike Simeon, she doesn’t ask Mary and Joseph to hold the baby. She just begins to speak, strongly, and clearly. She had prayed for this moment over and over, early in the morning, before breakfast, and late in the evening, before sleep. She knew who this baby was. So she explained to Jesus’ parents, and the crowd that had gathered around them, who Jesus would be and why he was important. She told them that this baby would confront the empire that had long oppressed them. This was the empire that made Mary travel with Joseph while 9 months pregnant. This baby, like Isaiah spoke of along ago, would save Jerusalem, she told them. He was the one Israel hoped for.
Isn’t it odd, asks one pastor1, that these two, older adults, who have little to no family, who have no children of their own, are the first people to recognize who Jesus is, apart from divine interventions. In chapter 1 of Luke, we have an angel appearing to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, explaining why John would be special. And another angel appears to Mary, to tell her she would be the mother of God. Simeon and Anna needed no angels. They had been listening to the Spirit all along, hoping and praying, for something to happen. Their bodies had their become weak, their steps had slowed. And yet they had never ceased praising God.
The inbreaking of the kingdom (or what Ada Maria Isasi Diaz calls kin-dom) of God becomes most real at this point. The new breaks into the old, the old welcomes the new. The incarnation isn’t just for the young, as the Holy Spirit dwells in all. The older people, Anna and Simeon, see their faith come alive in the face of the infant Jesus. Their disappointments are heartbreaks do not go away, though. Simeon’s pains in his body still remained. Anna still grieved the loss of her husband and her dreams of a family, even at her old age of 84. But here, at the temple of Jerusalem, gazing upon a squirmy child, they represent this Old Beginning.
We often don’t hear about the Simeons and Annas in society. Or, in the Christmas story, for that manner. The media, who highlights the young and the beautiful, has a habit of dismissing these saints as untimely, unfashionable, not useful. Yet, the years of prayer and praise that came from their lips formed not only them, but their community. The Simeons and Annas of our church and other churches keep the faith when we cannot. I often say this when I experience doubt—that you, the church, keep the faith for me, when I feel I cannot. That’s what it means to be church. Simeon and Anna’s praises become all of our praises. Their disappointments are reflected in ours. And their hopes become our hopes. When everything seemed bleak, their constant murmured prayers at the temple, in the morning, and the evening, sustained them. Sustain us.
I witnessed a Simeon/Anna moment recently with my niece. This summer, my grandmother met my niece for the first time. She was maybe a week older than Jesus was when his parents brought him to the temple. As my grandmother held the newborn in her arms, she began to weep. She said, my blood is in her blood. And she will do things I’ve never dreamed of, or will see. And that’s ok. I imagined her as Anna. Anna, who never got to see Jesus grow up, heal people. Anna, who never saw the resurrection. And still, she knew that the baby she held in her arms would be the Messiah, the savior of the world.
So maybe, as we approach the New Year, as we find ourselves recovering from the Christmas season, braving the cold, and suffering the long stretch of winter, let us embrace the Simeons and Annas in our midst, here at church, and maybe within ourselves. Let’s continue those habits of praise and prayer2, even when it seems like drudge work, even when we can’t see the end. Let us lean into their praises when our mouths can’t say the words. Let us give thanks for their cultivation of the Holy Spirit within our midst, and let us continue to seek out the Holy Spirit within our own. For remembering Christmas is not just for a season, but every time we see God in others in our midst.
This God is in a barn, and God in a temple.
This is Emmanuel, God with us.