Was Christmas all that you hoped for? Did you get all the presents you wanted? Did you get to sing all your favorite carols? Did you get to feast, without gaining a single pound?
Or did your Christmas leave you feeling a bit empty or just a bit unfulfilled? Was that special present… missing? Did you miss out on caroling? Did your plans to stay fit… just not fit?
Christmas in the U.S. is so big you cannot avoid it — whether you look forward with anticipation, or dread, or both! So, after such a long pre-holiday build-up, a feeling of let-down and relief is understandable. But if Christmas is so big that we are left feeling exhausted by its passing, then have we been missing the point? If Christmas is followed by post-holiday blues, then what exactly have we been waiting for?
CELEBRATING A NEW BABY
Often when we read, hear or watch the Christmas story, we think of the trip to Bethlehem, the shepherds, the angels, Herod, and the Magi. However, there is an important event that comes soon after Jesus’ birth, that Luke describes in the latter part of Chapter 2.
In today’s culture, we have a lot of traditional activities to welcome a new baby — baby showers, birth announcements, “reveal” parties to learn if it’s a boy or a girl. The Hebrew people in the first century had their own set of rituals and traditions, originating with events and teachings in the Old Testament. One important tradition recalled the original Passover, when the Angel of the Lord “passed over” the Israelite’s first-born males, just before Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. Another important tradition included making a sacrifice, as commanded in Leviticus 12:6-8.
When Mary and Joseph traveled to the Temple in Jerusalem to mark their new son’s birth, they probably expected nothing extraordinary and may have been completely taken aback when they were approached by an elderly man and an elderly woman.
So, who were Simeon and Anna? We don’t have a lot of information, since we only know of them from this single episode in Luke’s history, but he gives us some important details.
Simeon had been promised he “would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” Luke says he was “righteous and devout.” Was he perhaps a truly observant pharisee? Was he simply a very observant Hebrew? There is much about Simeon we just don’t know.
About Anna we actually have a bit more information. It is clear Anna was married young, then sadly after seven years she was widowed young and lived the rest of her life in the temple. She was clearly old, and her life had been many long years of praying, watching, and waiting in the temple.
SIMEON & ANNA WAITS
We usually think of the season for Christmas preparation as the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas day, about a month. For Simeon and Anna, their time of waiting was for a lifetime, and they knew clearly when that time of waiting had been fulfilled.
The customary temple celebrations for a firstborn male turned into speeches and songs about salvation, revelation, glory for Israel, and redemption of Jerusalem. In their proclamations over Mary and Joseph’s baby, Simeon and Anna echo Isaiah 42:1-9. This is one of the Servant Songs in Isaiah, a passage that both looks back recalling what God HAS done in the past, starting as far back as Creation, and looks forward to what God WILL do in sending a deliverer. There are also echoes of Isaiah 52:9-10, looking forward to redemption and freedom from slavery and oppression.
Both passages from Isaiah were seen in first-century Israel as referring to God’s deliverance of his chosen people from slavery. Both passages looked back to times in the past that God had delivered his people, and both passages were seen as looking forward in predicting the hope for a Messiah. This Messiah was expected to bring freedom from slavery and freedom from oppressors. The passages in Isaiah also make it clear, however, that the prophets expected the God’s servant to fulfill Israel’s mission of bringing light, freedom, and reconciliation. The Servant was not going to some just for Israel’s benefit, rather Israel had been chosen as God’s representative to the world, and the Servant Songs in Isaiah shaped the expectations for a chosen Messiah who would bring God’s kingdom on earth.
So when Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem, they were met by a man and a woman marking their son’s birth with songs and speeches that clearly linked the baby Jesus to the Old Testament prophecies of a suffering servant who would fulfill Israel’s mission to bring light, freedom, and reconciliation to the world.
NOT THE END, BUT THE BEGINNING
We can think of Simeon’s song and Anna’s proclamation as a time of “commencement” for Jesus. The waiting that stretched back at least as far as the Old Testament Servant Songs of Isaiah is now over, but the story of God’s Messiah is just beginning. The baby Jesus will grow up to say “let the little children come to me” and scold his disciples for being too aloof to deal with children. This small child will grow up to teach others to “Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” This baby born to an average working class couple will grow up to teach others that “just as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family you did it to me.” This baby Jesus, born humbly in a stable and dying humbly on a cross, will rise to tell his followers that
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” – Matthew 28:18-20
For those who feel they cannot measure up to expectations, Christmas means the coming of the Savior who paid the price for our sins. In paying the price for our sins, Jesus sets us free from expectations — our own expectations of ourselves, the expectations of others, and in a sense even what we think of as God’s expectations of us. We easily think God expects and demands perfection, but we are painfully aware that we fall short in sin over and over again — by paying the price for our sins, Jesus sets us free from the need to measure up to the perfection we think God demands.
For those who dread loneliness, for those who don’t know how to fit in, for those who feel alienated from family or friends, Christmas means the coming of the one who brings comfort.
For those who are downtrodden, Christmas means the coming of Jesus, about whom Isaiah said “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”
Christmas is fundamentally about the beginning of Jesus calling us to be part of His mission. We can best celebrate Christmas by looking FORWARD to the ways we can share and live out the kingdom of God in our lives.