1st Sunday of Christmas: Old Time Religion
Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Luke 2:22-40
I’d like to begin the New Year by considering some of God’s words that were quite old, even before Jesus was born.
Joseph and Mary were a poor couple who nonetheless made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to redeem their firstborn son in accordance with God’s Law. Because all firstborn boys, as well as herd and flock animals, belong to the LORD (Exodus 13:2, 22:28-29, Numbers 3:13 etc), they need to be sacrificed to God. However, our God is disgusted human and donkey (Exodus 13:13) sacrifices. The solution is to present a lamb in the place of those lives which were to be spared.
Luke recorded the story about Mary and Joseph going to the temple to present their offering on behalf of their son, but included an important detail. They do not bring a lamb, but instead they presented two birds, either doves or pigeons. This tells us that they were especially poor, because they were not able to bring a lamb to sacrifice. However, God made provision for just such an occasion and stipulated that if a family was too poor to buy a sheep to sacrifice, they could sacrifice two birds instead (Leviticus 5:7).
Even today, where I live in Morocco, almost all families are able to afford to kill a sheep to mark the birth of most children, not just the firstborn male. It is definitely an expense, but because it is eaten by the family and guests, instead of devoted to God or priests, it is usually counted as part of the food budget of the family and represents an important occasion for celebration and protein consumption for poorer families.
As Joseph and Mary were redeeming Jesus, a man named Simeon was led by the Holy Spirit to the temple to encounter Jesus. God’s Spirit had told him earlier that he would no die until he saw the Messiah. He was overjoyed to behold Jesus, and thanked God for his faithfulness in keeping promises to his servant. Not only had God kept his promise to allow Simeon to behold the anointed savior, but also, as Simeon sang, God kept God’s promises through the prophet Isaiah to shine a light of revelation to the gentiles (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, 51:4). Simeon blessed God for the fulfillment of promises made to him personally and promises made hundreds of years earlier.
Hannah (“Anna” in many English Bibles) is one of my favorite people in scripture. She is the last representative mentioned of a group of women who had ministered at the tabernacle and then temple since the time of Moses (Exodus 38:8, 1 Sam 2:22). Hannah was a prophet who lived for years in the temple, fasting and praying on behalf of the people of Israel. Her decades of long, faithful service to the Lord and looking forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises allowed her to recognize the messiah as a baby, even among all the sacrifices and worship of Herod’s monumental temple. Hannah was the first person in scripture who encountered Jesus and then on an ongoing basis taught and testified about him (Luke 2:38) after he left her. Hannah bat Phanuel, whose name is hardly ever mentioned in Christian history, was the first apostle [one to go out with a message] of Jesus!
Luke opened and closed this pericope about witnesses to Jesus by stating that Jesus’ parents did everything to fulfill the Law of the Lord (2:22-24, 2:39). God was doing a new thing in Jesus, to be sure. But the new thing was in fulfillment of some very old promises and prophesies. God promised to send a light for the Gentiles, a messiah to save God’s chosen people Israel and to cause the falling and rising of many. Instead of seeing Jesus as a radically new thing, I believe that Luke’s gospel invites us to see Jesus’ entry into human history as a deep continuity of God’s work in redeeming the people. As Joseph and Mary’s poor offering attests, from the very beginning God had plans in place for those who needed extra help to follow God’s way.
Not following the best way and offering imperfect gifts is the situation that we all find ourselves in as a result of sin and death. God knew this and provided a path for redemption through the victory of Jesus over sin and death. Thus we are able to declare, with Jesus, the words of the prophet Isaiah:
I will rejoice greatly in the Lord,
My soul will exult in my God;
For He has clothed me with garments of salvation,
He has wrapped me with a 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 sprouts,
And as a garden causes the things sown in it to spring up,
So the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
To spring up before all the nations.
May we look to God’s words, law and promises from of old and join Simeon the loyal bondservant of God and Hannah the prophet in rejoicing in God’s faithfulness. Simeon and Hannah’s model for us, and that of the Holy Family, encourages us to not forget the old promises of God, but to bless God for their fulfillment in our lives!