Photo by Jessica Lewis 🦋 thepaintedsquare: https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-photography-of-bauble-1646331/
Readings: Luke 2:21-40, Secrets of Heaven #10574:11 (see below)
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We talk a lot during Advent and Christmas about the coming of the light, and about the light shining in the darkness, and how beautiful and hopeful that light can be. This is often a lifeline to us; we need beauty and we need hope. But of course, the light did not come only to be beautiful, to be the object of our admiring gaze. The light came to inspire and effect the transformation of this world……in fact, the beauty and hope that is inspired in us by the light, the glory of it, is I believe, because we recognize its larger purpose.
Today in our text we read the final section of Luke’s birth narrative. It tells us about what Mary and Joseph do before returning to Galilee. It does not often get as much attention as the manger scene but it is important nonetheless, because it makes a declaration about who Jesus is and what he is going to do.
Among the various rituals that we hear described in the text, one of them is that Jesus is circumcised, as the law specified, on the eighth day after his birth. This event would mark his acceptance into the covenant community of Israel. Yet, this act is held in tension with Jesus’ naming, which Luke makes clear comes, not from Joseph or Joseph’s linage, but from God. We find that Jesus’ identity is both within and without established boundaries, he is both particularly Jewish, and but also something beyond that.
So, as we will see throughout this passage, Jesus identity is of two realms. He is clearly Jewish, and his parents do all that they are supposed to do in order to fulfill the law. They are devout, they are diligent, and so will Jesus be. But, that is not all Jesus is to be. Jesus has also been given an identity by God that speaks to something larger than the destiny of Israel, it speaks to the coming of the kingdom of God.
And so this tension that exists in the presentation of Jesus identity, can mirror the tension of how God is to be present in our own lives. God will always be “something else” to us, something beyond our expectations, for God shows up in ways that we cannot imagine. The Christmas story is an example: God showing up in all the places we do not expect…a vulnerable baby, born out of wedlock into poverty to a marginalized young woman of no particular birth in an occupied land. The Christmas story is so familiar that we sometimes forget just how unusual it really is, the gently sanitized versions of the stable belying the muck and the mess, and joy of the shepherds muting the terror and surprise of the heavenly host appearing to the lowest of the low. Praise be to God that the divine does not play by our rules, our bureaucracies, our systems of merit. Praise be to God that our concepts of where God is *allowed* to be are confounded again and again and again.
God shows up where we do not necessarily expect. And also, as we hear in our text today, God showed up for the patient and devout Simeon and Anna, showed up for them in the very place that God had always said God would be: the temple. So, it’s not that God specifically enjoys being random or confounding us, it is just that God cannot be bounded by our ideas of God; it is impossible that the infinite should conform to the finite. But that doesn’t mean that the point of surprise is to humiliate and confuse us, or to have us believe that we cannot possibly rely on God in any way because God’s ways are so very mysterious. The point is that God must have as many means as possible to reach us. For Simeon and Anna, their God showed up for them through what they had always done: their diligent rituals, their devotion. They had patiently and devoutly transformed themselves into people who could see God in the everyday, and when Jesus showed up, they understood exactly who he was and what he was going to do. They were not put off by the poverty of his circumstances or the vulnerability of his infant state. They had long cultivated the kind of eyes that could see God, and so they *did* see God. It will not be long in the gospel story before we learn that not everyone was willing or able to recognize God so easily.
And so now, as we stand on the threshold of a new year, we might find ourselves sitting in a similar tension. We have just witnessed the incredible gift of the birth of Jesus, and the incredible wonder of how God shows up, and now we must return to our lives as they are. And as we return we find it is also the time of year for resolutions, the time of year when we are called to think about how we want to live into the new year. To ask: how I can be a partner to God? To wonder: Is there a way that I can uncover God’s presence in the everyday, through my everyday, just like Simeon and Anna.
For, we will always all be Shepherds, wherein the divine sometimes bursts in upon us, our eyes forced open by the sheer majesty. We will all always be Mary wherein the divine is found in unexpected opportunity, seeing God in circumstances that we never would have chosen on our own. But the question before us today is: can we also be Simeon and Anna, ready and waiting to see the divine because of the kind of life we have constructed for ourselves. Because clearly, we cannot control God’s coming, but we can little by little transform ourselves into the kind of person who recognizes God’s constant presence in this world, who sees the baby and declares the glory.
For, the seeing of the light and declaring the glory of it cannot really be separated. We heard this in our Swedenborg reading: the light represents God’s divine truth, and the glory represents whatever is produced by the light. Here we come to understand that the function of the light is active. It is not just content to shine beautifully; it’s aim is to *enlighten*, to produce an outcome that increases the presence of God in the human heart, to be a way in which we can perceive something of the divine, a way in which we can be connected to the love of God. This is the way God is truly glorified, not by praise, but by outcome, by what happens when we perceive what the light reveals.
And this is not always pretty. In Simeon’s words…”This child is destined for the falling the rising of many in Israel…so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed and a sword will pierce your own heart too.” The light of Divine Truth reveals, but we are not always happy about *what* it reveals. Change is scary, and growth is work. Yet, it gives us the opportunity to step into that which glorifies God, instead of that which obscures God. Swedenborg phrases it that “the glory” is everything that *springs* from Divine Truth. I do love how active that phrasing is. The enlightening, the revealing nature of Divine Truth wants to give birth to something alive and glorious, something that connects us more strongly to God and to each other, and given the smallest opportunity, our smallest cooperation, it will. And the question posed by Simeon and Anna today is how to keep our eyes open to the light on the non-Christmas days of the year when we are not assisted by a culture saying “Look here!”
Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.”(1)
Of Anna, our text says: “She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” In reality, we never *do* leave the temple, we never can, for God’s presence is not mediated by space but by attention. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are. God has made the world, and our lives, the temple. May we remember to pause and look around, for a tiny, precious, vulnerable revelation may be about to enter.
(1) Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, xvi
21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.
22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord” ), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” 33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
Secrets of Heaven 10574:11
These places have been quoted from the Word because 'glory' and 'light' are mentioned together in them; and they have been quoted to make people aware that 'light' means Divine Truth that comes from the Lord, thus the Lord Himself in respect of Divine Truth, and that 'glory' means everything that is a product of the light, consequently everything that springs from the Divine Truth composing the intelligence and wisdom which angels possess, and which people in the world who receive the Lord in faith and love possess.