On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me – three French hens, two turtledoves, and a partridge in a pear tree. In the church, Christmas is not a single day, but a season – complete with twelve days of feasting and celebrating. Perhaps, you are celebrating with visiting family and friends. Many are off school and some are off work. And this morning, we are all remaining with Jesus, basking in the afterglow of his birth and wondering what comes next after the event, we have been waiting for.
In our lectionary, we have one of the few stories about the infant Jesus. This is a rare glimpse into the childhood of Jesus, period. There are very few stories in the canonical gospels about the early days of Jesus. And this one, scholars believe, is included to give us a clear indication that Jesus is a Jew among Jews. His parents participated in the rites and rituals of his heritage, as they ought. According to Luke, it is now forty days after Jesus’ birth (which in our calendar would be February 2nd. This was celebrated in many churches as Candlemas. In our vernacular, it is merely Groundhog’s day).
But I digress, after eight days, Jesus had been circumcised and named in accordance with Jewish law. Now, thirty-two days later, his parents are again performing their duty as faithful Jews by returning to the Temple, this time in order to offer a sacrifice and to consecrate their child to the Lord. The book of Leviticus lays out that after the birth of a son, a woman is impure for 40 days.1 At the end of which time, she brings a sacrifice to the Temple. Mary and Joseph, of a lower financial status, brought two turtledoves for that sacrifice. Now, in addition to this being the birth of a son, it was significant that it was her first-born son. First-born, literally meaning opens the womb. All of the first born, animals and humans, alike, have a connation to belong to the Lord. This incidentally, is where we get our phrase that we would give our first born for something.
A first-born son is redeemed through the payment of five shekels to the priests. Redemption included the idea that the first-born son “belongs” to the Lord in a special way and is dedicated to serve him (as the Levites were also dedicated to serve him). The language of the dedication of Jesus echoes the language from Hannah and Samuel as Hannah fulfilled her vow to the Lord. While there was a requirement of the offering at the birth of the child, there was no requirement that the child actually be presented in the Temple. This connects Jesus to the tradition of Samuel and the Levites, who were presented to the Lord at the Temple. Jesus was not merely presented to the priests, but also to Simeon and Anna, prophet and prophetess who waited for the coming of the Messiah.
Simeon is an old man who has received a promise, that is to him as an individual, but also to all that God will not leave us or forsake us. His sign of this promise is that he will be able to see the Messiah before his death. An audacious promise. Nevertheless, a promise that God keeps as Jesus is presented in the Temple. Moreover, Simeon knows to look for, to actively seek God who keeps God’s promises. In the infant Jesus, he has seen a sign and token that the Lord has kept the promises made to the Israelites of old and, trusting God’s promises, is able to accept his own death with courage. In many traditions, the response to communion is Simeon’s song, where we not only hear, but also see, touch, and feel the promise of life God makes to us. Simeon is blessed to see Jesus before his death.
Anna sings next. This prophetess, whose status in life is denoted by loss: the loss of her husband and the loss of children. But hers are not songs of loss and sadness, but of praise and thanksgiving. She, too, receives the Christ child as a sign that God keeps God’s promises and all she can do is respond with thanksgiving. Anna is blessed to see Jesus in this life.
And don’t forget, we will see Jesus in the Temple again. It will not be too long until we hear of him so comfortable in the Temple that he does not leave with Mary and Joseph, but rather stays to learn and engage with those adults that he has come to know. Jesus knows the Temple and the laws associated with Judaism. His engagement and tensions are always of one who knows deeply and critiques the living out or the application of the law. Luke depicts a temple open to all that seek the presence of God, distinguishing between pausing to worship and honor God from practices that oppress and dishonor others.
And who are blessed to see Jesus. To know and experience the gift that God offers to each of us at Christmas. Christina Rossetti wrote the poem, “Love came down at Christmas” in 1885, reflecting on the incredible gift of God becoming human in the person of Jesus, in order to show us how to live love. Would you listen and watch, this modern version of the poem, put to music by the band, Jars of Clay? show YouTube video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIr5th0d44Y#t=193
We who are blessed that love came down at Christmas, so that we might also have a token, a reminder, a mission of how to live out love: not as merely a reception of blessing, but an initiative to action. These are also the words of the prophet, Isaiah. The mission given to the prophet of Isaiah 61:10-62:3 is still needed today. Whenever, we experience the world as brokenhearted, mourning and in captivity. The mantle that Jesus wore in the first century, is ours to wear today. So long as Christians have to look forward to Christ’s Second Advent, there will be need for a herald of promises as-yet-unseen.
The words of Howard Thurman come to mind:
The work of Christmas begins…
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart. 2
Indeed, you and I, we have been blessed. Blessed to see Jesus in the celebration of this season. Blessed to see Jesus in the movement of God. Blessed to see Jesus in the faces of one another. And now, it is our blessings that move us forward. We have been dismissed to share those blessings with others. To carry the mantle of the one who brings blessings and who comes into the form of humanity, so that we might now what love looks like born. We are blessed, so that we may bless others.
This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, thanks be to God, Amen.
2″The Work of Christmas” in The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations by Howard Thurman.
Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 61:10-11; 62:1-3
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
Gospel Lesson: Luke 2:22-40
When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” Now 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. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided 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, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 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.” 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.” 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. 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.