Luke 2 moves from the birth of Jesus, set in the broad sweep of history, and then narrowed down to a poor, pregnant girl in Bethlehem, to angels in heavens and shepherds on the ground, and then to life as might be expected of a faithful Jewish couple. Throughout Mary is treasuring the meaning of all these things (verses 18 and 51). Luke locates the life of the Messiah and Lord both in world history and in the human heart. It’s not John’s “Word become flesh,” but it is nonetheless a deeply incarnational reflection on the meaning of the Messiah.
This enfleshed Word is revealed to a couple of oldsters in the Jerusalem temple before anyone else really catches on. I don’t know if Luke is thinking about the prophet Joel at this point, although Luke will be thinking about Joel at the beginning of the Book of Acts. In Luke 2 we see the Holy Spirit giving visions to the young and fulfilling the dreams of the old, just as Joel promised.
2. The Righteous Ancestors
“Age,” writes Parker Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness, “has robbed me of the energy required to fake it and also the motivation. I feel less need,” he continues, “to try to fool anyone about anything and more need to be here as myself for as much time as I may be granted” (Kindle Location 1885). Perhaps Simeon and Anna can see what is happening in Jesus because they are too tired to fake it and are thus open to what’s actually going on. That might be a good definition for the wisdom of the aged.
The name “Simeon” means “he listens.” It comes from the same Hebrew root as “shema,” the Hebrew for “to hear.” This is the verb in Deuteronomy six, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord.” Luke emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit both in the Gospel and in the Book of Acts. Simeon is guided by the Holy Spirit in what he does here.
The “consolation of Israel” probably meant the restoration of the Davidic kingdom in some way, or at least the removal of the foreign invaders from the Promised Land. So, Simeon represents Israel’s hopes and dreams for restoration and redemption.
His song is that of an old man who knows it was all worth the bother. With the witness of Simeon, Luke places the good news of Jesus Christ directly in the line of God’s plans for faithful Israel. Simeon’s testimony is trustworthy since he is “righteous and devout” and “the Holy Spirit rested on him.” This is similar to the language Luke uses to describe how Mary comes to be pregnant with Jesus. Simeon is pregnant with expectation just as Mary was pregnant with fulfillment.
As I move into the fourth quarter (I hope there’s that much left) of life, I sometimes wonder if it meant anything at all. “The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater,” writes Atul Gawande in Being Mortal, “a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror. But if you do, it is not” (page 127).
This church to which I’ve given most of my adult years, was it worth the bother? Predictions of the demise of the ELCA as an organization are precise these days. Are they prescient? I’d like to know if it was all worth it or if I should have gone into construction or farming. Mary Oliver puts it this way in a poem, quoted by Parker Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness. “When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular, and real. I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened, or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world” (Location 1897).
I’m not going to get that assurance before I pass from the scene. But Simeon had learned that he would get precisely such a preview. He gets a last chance to be useful as he blesses the child and praises God for the privilege. “When I die, I won’t be asking about the bottom line,” Parker Palmer writes in On the Brink of Everything. “I’ll be asking if I was faithful to my gifts, to the needs I saw around me, and to the ways I engaged those needs with my gifts—faithful, that is, to the value, rightness, and truth of offering the world the best I had, as best I could.” (page 64). We might see Simeon as an example of that faithfulness to the last breath.
I am struck, as a grandparent, by Simeon’s gentle embrace of the child. He took the baby in his arms and began to sing! “The prospect of death—heightened by winter’s dark and cold, by solitude, silence, and age—makes it clear that my calling is to be gentle with the many expressions of life, old and new,” Palmer writes, “that must be handled with care if they are to survive and thrive, and that includes me.” (On the Brink of Everything, page 72). Simeon represents the faith community offering a blessing to the next generation of the faithful. I have to wonder how many times Mary told this story to Jesus as he grew toward adulthood.
Simeon also brings the cross right to the margin of the manger. Luke does not have the account of the Slaughter of the Innocents that we find in Matthew’s gospel. Instead, Simeon declares to Mary that, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” The shadow of Golgotha rests on Jesus from his birth.
Anna reminds us of Hannah in 1 Samuel. It’s not clear if she’s eighty-four or a hundred and four, depending on how you understand the relationship between her marriage and her widowhood. In any event, she “was of great age.” She is the first female witness that the Messiah has come as good news for “all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Anna used her pain and trauma to generate a life of faithful waiting and then witness. “Old age is no time to hunker down, unless disability demands it,” writes Parker Palmer. Old is just another word for nothing left to lose, a time of life to take bigger risks on behalf of the common good.” (On the Brink of Everything, page 16). Anna is listed as a member of the tribe of Asher, which is one of the ten “lost” northern tribes of Israel. These tribes disappeared from the physical pages of history seven centuries earlier. But they had not disappeared from the pages of wise memory. Perhaps this is a way for Luke to suggest that all Israel shall be restored, not just Jerusalem and Judah.
Perhaps this is another part of what the Bible means by “wisdom.” Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that Anna is a model of the “wise widow,” seen in both the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures. “Wisdom as a stereotypical virtue of older women,” they note (page 298). Wise Anna recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. She witnesses “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Anna, after decades of penitence and prayer, now launches into praise and witness. I can’t imagine that this change was met with anything other than either bemusement or irritation. The old girl has finally lost, some may have said. What business does she have in speaking of things about which she knows nothing, others might have said. “I no longer ask, ‘What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to hang on to?’ Parker Palmer notes. “Instead, I ask, ‘What do I want to let go of, and what do I want to give myself to?’” (On the Brink of Everything, page 34).
If the task of old age is generativity, giving life and hope and blessing to those who come after, Simeon and Anna are models of faithfulness for Christians who were beginning to think about what it meant for the church to go on for centuries rather than decades. That may be one of the reasons Luke includes these stories in the gospel account.
In their book, Aging, Henri Nouwen and Walter Gaffney remind us of an old legend about the value of the elders among us. The legend tells of a village where they used to sacrifice and eat their old men. A time came when all the old men were gone, and all the memories of the village were lost. When they wanted to build a big house in the village, no one could remember which way the timbers should be placed. An error would produce disaster. A certain young man said he could help them if they promised to stop eating the old men. They made the promise. The young man brought forth his grandfather, whom he had hidden to protect him. The old man taught the community how to build and flourish. (page 23).
The myth that Nouwen and Gaffney share is a good illustration of what Simeon and Anna offer to the gospel story. They can see what God is up to where so many others cannot. The aging are our prophets in many ways, if we but listen. “In the midst of all the darkness…” they write, “it is possible suddenly to come across an old man [or old woman] with a soft smile, suggesting that there is more to see than we first imagined” (page 51). They suggest that the old among us might be best situated to point us to the light ahead of us, if we have the eyes to see.
I love these stories because they lift up the witness of the righteous elders. Anna and Simeon demonstrate what it looks like to live long in expectation. And they remind us that there is always more to learn. God never runs out of surprises, never has to repeat an episode, is endlessly and relentlessly creative.
There is always more to learn, another hill to climb in this life. Nobody finishes complete. “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal,” Paul writes in Philippians 3:12, “but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Simeon says he can die in peace because God’s word of promise has been fulfilled. It’s not that everything is finished – no, it’s hardly begun. But Simeon has been granted the privilege of seeing the beginning and knowing the end. He embodies what Paul celebrates, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” Paul declares, “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
“Positive aging,” writes George Vaillant in Aging Well, “means to love, to work, to learn something we did not know yesterday, and to enjoy the remaining precious moments with loved ones” (KL 261). Simeon is ready to die in peace, having witnessed the meaning of his life and the life of his people. Anna, on the other hand, has work yet to do – witnessing to what she has seen and heard. She illustrates the words of Nouwen and Gaffney: “We believe that aging is not a reason for despair,” they write, “but a basis for hope, not a slow decaying but a gradual maturing, not a fate to be undergone but a chance to be embraced” (page 20).
This text can be, I think, a chance to lift up and honor our own righteous elders. It can be, perhaps, also a way to encourage and challenge congregations that feel like they are at the end of their life cycle. If Erikson is right in his reflections on the psychological task of elders (and I think he is), then even congregations in a “hospice” condition, can and must still find ways to be generative.
In their book Aging, Henri Nouwen and Walter Gaffney tell us that in this life we move from what we have been given to what we have given. That is the real process of living. “Aging is the turning of the wheel,” they write, “the gradual fulfillment of the life cycle in which receiving matures in giving and living makes dying worthwhile” (page 14). If you speak in a congregation wondering how it all will end, there is perhaps hope in this text. “When hope grows, we slowly see that we are worth not only what we achieve but what we are, that what life might lose in use, it may win in meaning” (page 71).
“The incarnation does not diminish God, does not reduce God to narrow human terms,” writes Parker Palmer in To Know as We are Known. “Instead, it explodes the boundaries of the human enterprise; it infinitely enlarges the self and the world.” We see some of that boundary exploding in this gospel reading. How will it challenge us to better understand our mission and service as Jesus followers here and now?
References and Resources
Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition
Palmer, Parker J. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Josey-Bass, 2009. Kindle Edition.
Palmer, Parker J. On the Brink of Everything. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Palmer, Parker J. To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Vaillant, George E. Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development. Little, Brown, and Company. Kindle Edition.
Fraser, Giles, “The Story of the Virgin Birth Runs Against the Grain of Christianity.” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/24/story-virgin-birth-christianity-mary-sex-femininity#:~:text=In%20the%20second%20century%2C%20the,him%20as%20Jesus%20ben%20Pandera.
Malina and Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.