The First Sunday after Christmas, 2020; Luke 2:22-40
“It is really true what philosophy tells us,” the Danish philosopher writes in his Journals, “that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition,” he warns, “that it must be lived forwards.” We live our lives with one eye on the windshield and the other on the rearview mirror. It’s not a strategy for safe driving. But it is a necessary practice for wise living.
We live life forwards, but we understand life backwards. That’s an appropriate thought for this last Sunday of the calendar year. We are always drowning in retrospectives at this point on the calendar. But 2020 will set records for rear-viewing along with all the other records we are setting. What can we learn from our experience? And how will we go forward?
Today we get what I want to call “Visions from the Verge.” Anna and Simeon, two old folks waiting for a word from the Lord, get their fondest wishes granted. Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Jerusalem Temple to present him to the Lord for dedication.
The Holy Spirit allows Simeon sees the family for who and what they are. He takes the child in his arms and bursts into song. Anna has been waiting for this moment her whole adult life. When she sees what’s happening, she tells everyone who will listen that the big moment is at hand.
How could Anna and Simeon see so clearly what no one else noticed? Well, you know…Holy Spirit, right? But perhaps it was their length of years as well. Not only did they have long memories to aid their understanding, but they both stood on the verge of death, and they knew it. Today could be the last day for any one of us. But the older we get, the more real that last day becomes in our awareness.
And often, the older we get, the more willing we are to call it as we see it. It’s much easier to speak the truth when there is little left to lose. Just as the risk decreases, so the urgency to speak increases. “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).
The urgency comes in part from wondering if we’ve bet on the right horse, if we’ve made a difference, if our journey through this world has mattered at all. “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 and Anna as examples of that faithfulness to the last breath.
These wise elders are among the first speakers of the good news in Luke’s gospel account. That good news is not all good of course. Simeon understands that disruption is costly because it threatens the powerful and uplifts the powerless. Simeon 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 in both the Infancy narratives.
Anna and Simeon are model disciples in Luke’s gospel. We get a preview of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts, chapter two. Old people not only get to dream dreams but perhaps get to see them fulfilled! From the verge of death and life, they catch the vision of God’s victory over sin, death and evil. They see a glimpse of the fulfillment of God’s promises not only to Israel but to all of Creation. Is it any wonder that Anna accosts everyone she can to share the joy?
They are model disciples for us as well. We too can look back from the end. We know how the story turns out. We can look back through resurrection to cross to life to birth and see how it works. We can speak truth to power and disrupt injustice because we have already died the death that matters in our baptisms. We can relinquish what doesn’t matter and rest in God’s promises as we wait for further fulfillment.
I hope one of the messages for today is that no one outlives their usefulness. “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). In Christ, we can ask that question right up to our dying breath.
So, let us be careful how we deal with those among us who are on the verge. They are our most likely visionaries. 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…” Nouwen and Gaffney 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—and endlessly and relentlessly faithful.
It is not only the old who are on the verge. Life comes from the edges—from our black and brown colleagues, from the LGBTQA+ community, from our children and youth, from the disabled, the impoverished, the migrants and wanderers, from atheists and agnostics. When we center what we already know, we learn nothing more. Then we’re as good as dead. So faithfulness means attending to the edges and listening closely at the margins.
“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 – and in the calendar year to come?
Let us pray. Deepen our understanding, Holy Spirit, and make us brave to live forward in faith, hope and love. Open our ears to the voices at the margins and de-center us so we might be honest in our loving and serving. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.