Rites of Passage
1st Sunday after Christmas Day
How has Christmas been for you this you year? I ask “how has it been” not “how was it” because we are still in the Season of Christmas, also known as Christmastide, which lasts from December 25th to January 5th, which is known as Twelfth Night, for which Shakespeare wrote the play by the same name as a fun conclusion to the Christmas Season. This period is also known, of course, as the Twelve Days of Christmas. For most of us, our Christmas celebrations become a rite of passage of sorts over the years, something that makes Christmas to be Christmas as we head into the New Year. With Christmas so different for most of us this year, maybe it hasn’t even felt like Christmas. We may have had presents and ate too much on Christmas Day, but were not able to spend time with those we love or enjoy some of the things we usually do. But hopefully, as we read again the stories of Jesus’ birth, the Christmas Season will feel familiar even in this most unfamiliar of years, as we mark the rites of passage Jesus went through as an infant.
Most of us can probably remember a time when infant baptisms were more common, when it was still a rite of passage for most folks, as were many other things we used to do in church. But times have changed. Jesus of course was not baptized by John until He was an adult, but as a Jewish baby, He would have been circumcised on the eighth day after His birth, according to the Law of Moses. Not only was it a requirement of God’s covenant with Abraham, it was a physical sign of that covenant and the blessings it entailed, marking the person as a member of God’s family. The next step was to present the newborn to God in the Temple. This is what Jesus’ family have traveled to Jerusalem for in today’s Gospel reading, having fulfilled the days of purification for mother and baby after the birth. Our practice of infant baptism is certainly much easier!
Twelfth Night is also known, less famously, as Epiphany Eve, for the next day is Epiphany, January 6th, when we celebrate Jesus being recognized as both fully human and fully divine. In the Western Church, this is marked by the arrival of the Three Wise Men, and in the Eastern Church, by the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. The reading for Epiphany from Isaiah 60 proclaims:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:1-3)
Whether or not you enjoy all of the history and details about the Church Calendar, as I do, this is what we celebrate during this Season. In a year where the days often seemed like they were running together without any distinction, as we waited for life to begin again, back to normal, celebrating the special days of the Church Calendar like we would any other year has brought me a certain sense of comfort and hope. It has reconnected me to the unfolding of God’s plan, and helps me to stay centered in a chaotic time. After a tough year, we remember again the day Jesus came into our world so long ago, and shone His light into a dark world, the light that still shines today.
But we are not to Epiphany yet, first, we have Jesus’ dedication in the Temple, an essential rite of passage for Jesus and for our world, another step in the unfolding of God’s plan. At first, it probably wasn’t any different to those present than any other dedication of an infant would seem. Luke notes that when His parents presented Him to God in the Temple, they sacrificed two birds, signifying that they were a poor family, unable to buy an animal. But there was one man present on whom the Holy Spirit rested, named Simeon, and he alone saw the significance of this rite. We are not told anything about him except that he was righteous and devout, “looking forward to the consolation of Israel”; in other words, the fulfillment of prophecy. He had been promised to behold the Messiah before he died, and that day had finally come. And for everybody else present, the day would no longer be another ordinary day.
Now imagine that you are presenting one of your kids or grand-kids to be baptized, and a complete stranger (not the pastor, although some of them are pretty strange, too!) grabs your baby and starts speaking to God! What would you think when you heard these words:
Now, Master, you let your servant go in peace. You have fulfilled your promise. My own eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all peoples. A light to bring the Gentiles from darkness; the glory of your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
What would you think, hearing these words, and what would you have done? Would you think this person was crazy? Would you snatch back you baby? Would you call the police? Like most of the stories about Jesus, we get more than we bargained for! Luke continues:
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “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.” (Luke 2:33-35)
What would you think if someone said such a thing about you, giving you a blessing, too? Joseph fades from the story after this, not to be mentioned by name again, but Mary of course will witness everything that happens to Jesus, including His death.
Simeon has always been portrayed as an old man, but Luke doesn’t actually tell us that he was, we probably just assume so, thinking that he has completed his life’s work and can now pass into glory. And as if this all were not amazing enough, Luke adds one more odd little story to mark this momentous day:
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38)
Perhaps because Anna was old, we assume Simeon was, too. Luke doesn’t record any of the words of Anna, but it is always significant when Scripture gives a person’s name. Not only was she very old, well over 100, but a female prophet is rare in the Bible. This story also emphasizes what a special, notable event this was. It is another rite of passage, another sign pointing to the significance of this baby boy. Isn’t it fascinating that two people, who have long-awaited the coming of the Messiah, are included in the story? What does that say to you? Doesn’t it tell you that you still have a part to play, no matter how old you might be, that God may have a surprise or two left before you join Jesus in Heaven? Perhaps we are not given some great task to perform here worth getting mentioned in the Bible or on Wikipedia, but we are all called to witness to Jesus, proclaiming that He is our Lord and Savior, the Messiah long awaited for. Our faithfulness is written in the Lambs Book of Life.
Luke concludes our passage for today:
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:39-40)
Another indication that it is all going according to God’s plan. Every proper step is taken, and every prophecy and promise is being fulfilled. Jesus didn’t just pop into the world on a lark, He came with a purpose, as do all of us. Christmas may be very different for us this year, but we continue to serve our Lord, celebrating this greatest of gifts.
We have now read the three great canticles or songs from the Gospel of Luke celebrating the coming of Jesus into our world. The first is The Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise given when she had her chat with Gabriel, which begins:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed. (Luke 1:46-48)
The second is the song of Zechariah, the Benedictus:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old. (Luk 1:68-70ESV)
And the third is the song of Simeon, called the Nunc Dimittus:
Now, Master, you let your servant go in peace. You have fulfilled your promise. My own eyes have seen your salvation. which you have prepared in the sight of all peoples. A light to bring the Gentiles from darkness; the glory of your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
These three songs are cherished prayers of the Church, in some places proclaimed daily as part of our devotion to Jesus. As we remember the rites of passage in Jesus’ life, we remember our own, as we walk with Jesus, seeking to be faithful and fruitful. The stories of the Bible are not just some words in a book, but they are the stories that intertwine with our own stories, giving us hope and a sense of purpose. In a year like no other, may they reconnect us to God’s unfolding plan for our world, giving us peace and hope. With the New Year almost here, let us recommit ourselves to follow Him daily, resolving to pray and read His Word every day, allowing the Spirit to fill our hearts and guide us forward. We, like Simeon and Anna, go in peace from here, knowing that God has and will fulfill His promises, inviting us to partake in them. And let us look forward to the day of our last rite of passage, when we depart in peace from this world and go to be with Jesus, our work here completed.