January 2, 2024

December 31, 2023 The First Sunday of Christmas

December 31, 2023 The First Sunday of Christmas

Gospel: Luke 2:22-40

Luke’s narrative continues with stories that emphasize Jesus’ connection to Judaism. His family is devout in its observance of the law, and Jesus himself is recognized as one who will bring glory to Israel.


22When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, [Joseph and Mary] brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23(as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
29“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
33And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34Then 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 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36There 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, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At 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.
39When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.


These Christmas stories often make me reflect back on the first Christmas after I gave birth – returning to church and returning to work with a five-week-old baby sleeping under my desk.  I was hesitant to share her, to let other people touch her sleeping face, so perfect and impossible to resist.  Rationally we worried about RSV and irrationally well, I just didn’t want to share.  But return to church we must.  


The first Sunday leading worship I had already intentionally chosen two women to care for Vivian.  They would hold her during worship and not pass her around.  As I began worship, speaking again the words to the brief order for confession and forgiveness.  The same words each week, written on my heart and my mouth moving in muscle memory, my daughter began to fuss and cry.  


Another muscle memory activated, as I prayed and confessed and absolved, I also began bouncing and swaying.  Consoling the infant who was not attached to my body, but whose needs my body responded to.  Several women in the congregation chuckled as they realized what I was doing, holding my hymnal.   In that moment, I realized again the price of motherhood was higher and holier than I imagined, and my heart and my body would be forever changed in ways I was only beginning to understand. 


The rituals of parenthood, changing diapers and feeding and consoling – are done out of obligation, yes, but out of love and need.  We practiced diaper changes and bedtime rituals as a matter of necessity but also bonding and connection.  These required rituals win you nothing, sometimes they don’t even work, and the diaper is useless and the child will not sleep, but still we practice.  


Mary and Joseph are presenting their child in the Temple for the appropriate ritual of the time, performing their duty as pious Jews, offering a sacrifice, and consecrating  their child to the Lord.  Sharing their first-born son, just 40 days after his birth, Mary observing the ritual purifications for her body’s work.  Mary and Jesus will appear at the temple, subject to ritual impurity, unable until the fortieth day to enter the holy place or touch a holy thing.  But we have it on angelic authority from Gabriel that Mary herself has become a sanctuary, the power of Most High overshadowed her,  in the same way that God filled the temple in Leviticus with his power and presence.  She is theotokos, God-bearer, and yet, she would be purified?  

bearing first in her womb and now in her arms a “holy thing.”


Required religious observances make it seem like you do this in order to get that.  When in reality, it really is just practicing and observing.  Practice the presence of the holy in places that God has promised to come among us and observing those times as special and holy and set apart. Marking the days and the months as set apart and celebrating the seasons together.  

 We take part in rituals together not out of obligation, but to practice our love and care.  We practice here, so that in the world, our hearts and body remember what God’s presence feels like and looks like.  


They must have been in a festive mood that day, full of reverence and expectancy, the way many young parents in our congregations when their first child is baptized.  their awe at entering its holy courts, their nervousness as they hope they’re doing everything right. Did we remember to take enough pictures, what were we supposed to say again?  A day full of great meaning, significance, and joy.  And a day full of community.  This is not an individual act of faith, a ritual to practice in your own home, but one that happens at the temple, in the midst of intergenerational community.  Including the two elderly worshippers, Simeon and Anna.  


Mary and Joseph are amazed at Simeon’s words, and receive his blessing, but his aside to Mary is cryptic at best, and ominous at worst.  And Anna, never leaving the temple, is no average church lady.     Though in my experience, elderly widows who spend long hours at the church are surprisingly prophetic.   Unlike Simeon’s quoted monologue, Anna’s prophecy is not recorded.  But she “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”  She had much to say and was not only a prophet, but an evangelist as well, sharing the good news of Jesus’ birth. 


We ponder the meaning of all these words as Mary did.  Of course, Mary was a bit of a prophet herself, as she sang the Magnificat.  Prophets have the ability to speak to what God is doing in the present, and they do it by knowing what God has done in the past.  Their expectations, grounded centuries of God’s faithfulness, become words that echo the sacred stories and texts they worshiped with.  


There is more to share about this holy birth than just angels and shepherds.  We are still in the season of Christmas, still celebrating the incarnation of God, through childbirth.  We practice this each year, Christ being born among us, taking on our flesh, born under the law – so that we might know and see the divine incarnate January through December as well.  


As we gather for rituals and rites, we flex our muscle memory in the liturgy.   We are held safe in God’s arms, even as we reach out our arms to embrace another in our community.  We hear words to hold in our heart and ponder quietly, even as we have praise to sing and share together.    Practicing our worship, with love and compassion – even as our Holy Parent consoles us and blesses us.    


We learn to cry out and trust that God the Father will hear us.  We practice bearing God’s word as Mary did, heavy and holy, but trusting that the word we carry is meant to be heard.  We practice giving thanks and sharing good news.  We practice looking at the world around us,  finding holy moments to claim and share, living out our identity as beloved children of God.  

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