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 2.37-38)
Just before Christmas I caught a “Primetime” rerun of Diane Sawyer’s report on cloistered nuns. Unlike sisters who dedicate their lives to charitable service, these saintly women heed a monastic calling to denounce all worldly obligations so they’re free to pray for the world. What Sawyer discovered in their fortitude, discipline, and self-sacrifice was astounding. Along with a perpetual intercessory vigil within their abbey walls, they answer a congregational call to prayer every three hours. Eight times a day they forego their communal and personal needs to lift our needs before God. Sawyer’s awe focused on the physical and emotional havoc that must result from such a grueling regimen. The nuns’ selflessness elicited a different response on my part, however. I couldn’t stop thinking, “Somewhere, someone is praying for me.” Think about that. Right now, regardless when you read this, people tucked away in abbeys and monasteries around the world are bowed in prayer for you—for us.
The manner in which the nuns discussed their vows took Sawyer aback. They spoke of their symbolic marriage to Christ as if it were an actual union and described their relationship in intimate terms—not merely loving Christ, but being in love with Christ. Although their passion was startling, their commitment defused any skepticism about their sincerity. Their lives gave weight to their words. In Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 2.22-40), we meet Anna, perhaps the New Testament’s finest example of a cloistered, intensely devout woman. Like the nuns that Sawyer interviewed, her integrity precedes her. On seeing the Infant, she rejoices and bears witness that He is Israel’s Promised Redeemer. And when Anna speaks, people listen. They may be taken aback but, still, they listen.
Christmas’s majesty invites us to overlook a sad aspect of its tale. By necessity, it scuttles any dreams Mary and Joseph harbor about being newlyweds and first-time parents. What enthralls us surely disappoints them on many levels. Luke 2.19 suggests Mary comes to terms with it, saying when the shepherds depart, she “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Eight days pass before things resemble anything Mary or Joseph may have dreamt about. Per custom, their Baby is circumcised and named “Jesus.” Like today, the bris is a private affair—a notable, yet not notably “big,” event. The big day that Joseph and Mary dream of comes 32 days later, when they go to Jerusalem, where Mary presents herself and Jesus to the Temple priests. That’s when Anna enters the picture, and grasping her importance requires fully understanding what’s going on.
Two essential rites are publicly observed. The first ends Mary’s purification—the 40-day period banning her contact with anyone outside her household. The second, designated for first-born sons, declares Jesus “holy to the Lord” (v23), with a sacrificial ritual that redeems Him just as Israel’s oldest males are saved when the Death Angel visited Egypt. The offering mirrors that of the first Passover: the blood of a lamb. But Mosaic Law makes exceptions for mothers who can’t afford a lamb. In its place, she offers a pair of turtledoves or young pigeons—one to seal her purification and the other a redemptive offering for her first-born son. Mary takes this option for many reasons. With pregnancy coming before her marriage is finalized, it’s doubtful her dowry has been transferred. Her 40-day confinement in Bethlehem has likely drained the couple’s resources. The costs of caring for a new mother and child have added to their burden. So we can assume they’re near penniless when they reach the Temple.
Putting practicalities aside, however, the presentation’s specifics are no less illuminating than the Nativity’s attention to detail. Once again, arbitrary factors combine to establish Jesus’s identification with the poor, uprooted, and those incapable of meeting the Law’s highest demands. More than that, it’s here that the substitution theme comes to the fore. The usual sacrifice is bypassed for a seemingly lower—nonetheless exceptional—offering that obtains astounding beauty in the nature of the exchange. It replaces an earthbound, dim-witted beast with a free and heavenly creature that lights on the ground yet lives in the sky.
Although we often call Jesus “the Lamb of God,” the avian substitution for His redemption more aptly presages His substitution for our redemption. The Lord of Heaven alights on Earth to save us. Our vantage from the far side of Calvary crystallizes the substitution’s meaning, but we can’t fathom anyone who witnesses the presentation perceiving its import. Yet two elderly prophets—Simeon and Anna—not only see it. They get it, because they’ve spent their lives looking for it. They glory in having the long-awaited Christ is in their midst.
Luke writes that the Spirit guides Simeon to the Temple, where he takes the month-old Child in his arms and praises God. He tells his Creator he’s ready to die, “for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (v30-32) He prophesies to Mary, foretelling Jesus’s death by saying He’s destined “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.” (v34-35)
While Mary and Joseph marvel at Simeon’s words, Anna appears. Luke tells us she’s 84 and cloistered herself in the Temple after her husband of seven years died. Since women of her time marry in their teens, Anna has spent 60-plus years fasting, praying, and anticipating the Savior. To three generations of worshipers she’s a Temple fixture whose permanence and devotion endow her testimony with enduring truth. She enlarges on Simeon’s praise and prophecy by including everyone who wisely attends to her message. Verse 38 reads, “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.”
A Breed Apart
No matter who, what, or where we are, trusting God’s Word transforms us from passive listeners into passionate lookers. Like Simeon, we live to see God’s pledges materialize before our eyes. Like Anna, we make great sacrifices to watch patiently for the joy and salvation promised to us. Like Mary and Joseph, we cope with the deferral of ordinary dreams and discover—to our amazement—God’s extraordinary purpose for our lives. As lookers, we’re a breed apart. We’re undaunted when what we observe conflicts with the vision God instills in our beings. We look for something better, purer, and truer than worldly favor or fortune—something so marvelous it can’t be mistaken as anything less than God’s handiwork. And we know it when we see it, because we know how God works. Material hardships result in spiritual windfalls. Periods of isolation bring us into the company of righteous prophets and people, fellow lookers one and all. When the best we can offer falls below traditional standards, faith magnifies our ability to see more than meets the eye. We view moments of inadequacy as new promises of greater things. Mary’s poor sacrifice activates Simeon and Anna’s vision to see the promise is bigger than they realized. The Christ Child’s symbolic redemption signals a New Order of inclusion God has “prepared in the presence of all peoples,” Simeon declares, “a revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” That’s incredibly big, completely unexpected and unprecedented good news.
How serendipitous that this passage finds its way to us on New Year’s Day, just as midnight resolutions start losing their fizz. The challenge at hand isn’t about resolving to do better in the coming months. It’s about mustering resolve to look for promises God wants to reveal to, in, and through us. Time is immaterial. Tenacious faith is what counts. Marching into 2012, our eyes fixed on God’s pledges, we’ll inevitably stumble on blind spots and momentary impasses of doubt and impatience. We’ll mistake harsh realities for hard-set impossibilities. Dim-witted, earthbound logic will present every reason to stop believing, praying, and watching for God’s Word to come to pass. In those moments, we reach for Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth, the Promise of all promises, Who with infinite compassion and wisdom calls people we don’t know to pray us through hours when our vision falters. May Anna and Simeon’s examples light our way through the coming year and the remainder of our days.
Savior, Whose promises are ever true, we begin another year resolved to look for Your promises to be realized in us. Illuminate our understanding that each ordinary day brings us one day closer to Big Days, when we marvel at Your handiwork. Make us tenacious lookers. Endow us with trust to await the visions You instill in our beings. Amen.
When what we observe conflicts with the vision God instills in us, we look beyond what we see, viewing moments of inadequacy as new promises of greater things.
Postscript: New Venture for a New Year
For some time, Britt, a longtime S-F reader and friend, has urged me to podcast the posts in tandem with publishing them here. It took a while for me to grasp why she was so enthusiastic and confident about the idea. But I finally got it and I’m delighted to report today launches the audio version of Straight-Friendly. It’s not much—just me reading the post—but it’s a start. Currently, I’m posting the podcasts on S-F’s freshly minted podbean site. I’ve yet to solve the inevitable Apple mysteries embedded in making them available via iTunes. Hopefully, that will happen very soon. I ask your prayers for this new venture, invite you to listen, and pass the link along to others who might want to listen in too!
(Thank you so much, Britt, for your gentle insistence. It wasn’t as difficult as I imagined!)
Happy New Year, everyone! May God bless you richly!