|Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord in Jesus: Rembrandt van Rijn|
Scripture can be found here...
The month of January was named by the ancient Romans for their god Janus, the god of beginnings and, therefore, also, endings. Also the god, therefore, of transitions, gateways, doorways and time. Janus was the god who looked both backwards and forwards, so he was depicted as having with two faces, so that he could do both at the same time.
Looking back and looking forward. It’s what we do at this time of year. We look back at the year gone by. Print and online magazines will provide us photographs and biographies of the famous and infamous people who died this year—Maurice Sendak and Sally Ride. Donna Summer and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. Phyllis Diller and Neil Armstrong. Nora Ephron and David Rakoff. And the critics will offer up their lists of the ten best movies, and the ten best novels, and the ten craziest things said by this or that pundit or news station this year. We look forward too, by the making of our own lists—our New Year’s Resolutions, the ways in which we will become, we hope, better people. I will learn to play the mandolin, I will lose weight, I will cut down on the time spent online, I will write letters with pen and paper. We look back and we look forward.
Have you ever wondered why this time of looking back and looking forward is most commonly celebrated by getting good and drunk?
There are lots of possible answers to that question. Here’s my guess. I think it can be hard to look back. For some, they are looking back on a tragedy like that suffered by the community of Rochester on Christmas Eve, or the one ten days earlier in Newtown, CT, the death of so many innocents. For others, the hardships were not on the scale of sudden tragedy, but were sustained over time, like a long, dull ache that does not go away. Life transitions, job losses, relocation, relationship troubles or breakups, health problems small, medium and large. These are the kinds of painful realities that may well still be with us as we transition into the New Year. Looking back can draw a sharp red line under the pain that only seems to increase the ache. Thus, the impulse to dull it, deny it, and cover it up with a celebration whose main feature seems to be not being able to remember too much the next day.
Simeon and Anna look back and look forward, too, but in a way that is very different.
When we meet Simeon, we are told he is a man “righteous and devout, and looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” Simeon looks back, and he sees the pain—all that pain and suffering we have been hearing about all through the fall, the story of the struggles of God’s people. But Simeon looks forward as well. He looks forward to God’s consolation.
That word, consolation, is from a Greek word meaning “calling near.” Simeon is looking forward to that time when all God’s people will know that God walks beside them, that God hears their cries and pleas and calls for help. You could make the argument that Simeon is looking forward to the coming of a Messiah.
Simeon sees that consolation in the flesh when he sees the infant Jesus, the one brought to the temple by his parents.
Anna, too, looks back on a life with its share of pain. She and her husband had just seven short years together, and she has lived the rest of her life—fifty years or more—in the temple. Anna is a prophet, and that means she is a truth teller. Anna’s truth is that she spends all her days hoping, praying, waiting, looking forward that time when the balm and healing of God, will pour down upon her and upon all God’s hurting children.
Anna sees Jesus, and he becomes her truth, he becomes that healing balm of God.
Both Anna and Simeon look back and see in the past, not just the pain, but also the joy. They see both pain and joy in the future as well, in their own lives, and in the life of this tiny child, still in the arms of his parents. We hear Simeon’s words to Mary, and we wonder—is this the kind of thing one says to a new mother? But this is not just the very real and human story of the life of Jesus unfolding; it is the story of scripture, too. As we tell the story, we tell it all—we don’t leave out the painful bits, or the traumas, and we don’t leave out the joys and beauty. We try to tell the truth, tell it whole.
Looking back and looking forward. Like Anna and Simeon, we are here in the midst of the still-beautiful celebration of Jesus’ birth, God’s consolation, God’s drawing near to frail and fragile humanity. We have called, and God has come. This morning, after our offering, we will all share in an opportunity to pray, not simply with words, but with actions, for healing and wholeness, for ourselves, for those we love, and for God’s whole world. You will be invited to come forward, if you wish, to receive anointing and prayer, from either myself or one of our ruling elders. Anointing with oil and prayer is an ancient way of showing that you are asking for God’s healing. It is an enacted prayer, a physical sign of your spiritual hope.
You will also be invited to light a candle, as another form of a prayer-in-action. These can be prayers for yourself, for a loved one, for a group of people, for a community, for the church, for the whole world. Your candle is a physical sign of your spiritual hope.
And you will be invited to a time of silent prayer. Prayer in community is a powerful thing. Even if you choose not to come forward to light a candle or to receive anointing, you can participate by praying.
“My eyes have seen your salvation,” Simeon says, “which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” God’s consolation is for all. God’s promise of healing is not about holiness or worthiness or praying hard enough or being anointed well enough. God’s consolation, God’s healing, is a gift. As we look back on the year past and as we look forward to the year that dawns, God’s consolation is free for the asking. Thanks be to God. Amen.