When we hold a baby, we cradle possibility and touch tomorrow.
As Carl Sandburg said in his book, Remembrance Rock, “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”
Mary and Joseph brought their baby to the temple to do what Torah, the Law of Moses, required of them: perform a ritual of purification for her and dedicate their child to God. As they held Jesus in their arms, they carried the destiny of the world, wrapped in skin.
They met two elders of their community, Simeon and Anna.
Luke tells us that, like Israel’s prophets, Simeon was “righteous and devout.” The Holy Spirit “rested on him;” he received “revelations from the Spirit” and he was “guided by the Spirit.”
The Spirit had promised him that he would not die until he experienced the “consolation of Israel” by “seeing the Lord’s Messiah.”
Having described Simeon as a prophet, Luke directly says that Anna was a prophet. Widowed for 84 years, she made her home in the temple, where she “worshipped day and night, fasting and praying.” She lavished her love on God and God’s people.
By telling us that Mary and Joseph were in the temple to honor the Torah and that they met there these two prophets, Luke underscores that Jesus was a child of God, the law and the prophets. He was nurtured by stories and practices of sincere devotion.
The encounter of young Mary and Joseph with old Anna and Simeon also gives us an early glimpse of the community of equality Jesus would create: young and old, men and women, Jew and Gentile.
Simeon took Jesus in his arms. Did a kind of spiritual electricity spark from the baby that kindled a fire in his heart? Did joy surge in him, because he knew beyond knowing that, after all his years of wondering and longing, God’s dreams for freedom, peace and justice would come true?
We can’t know what Simeon felt, but we know what he said: “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.”
When Anna saw the baby, she couldn’t restrain her praise. I imagine she felt the hopes and fears of all her long years were being met in Jesus. To the people looking on, she announced that, in Jesus, God was redeeming God’s people.
As we celebrate Christmas in troubled times, it’s important to remember that, while everything Simeon and Anna affirmed was true, the world did not appear to have changed when Mary and Joseph took their child home.
The empire still occupied Israel. Violence was common. Poverty threatened. There was – there always is – heartbreak, sickness, pain, death and grief.
It’s Christmas, and the coronavirus still runs rampant. We’re in the middle of a difficult and too-long postponed racial reckoning.
The Main Street economy, in contrast with the Wall Street economy, is struggling. Small businesses are shuttering. More people are facing eviction from their homes. Lines at food banks are lengthening.
It’s hard to believe we live in the world Christmas promises.
It was hard for Simeon, Anna, Mary and Joseph. Somehow, though, they trusted that, because of Jesus, the world would go on, not along the weary course it was traveling, but on the true way to life as God meant it to be.
They saw and held God’s embodied promise, a promise so amazing that it provides its own convincing fulfilment in advance of its complete realization.
In a tender poem, E.B. White said:
Hold a baby to your ear
As you would a shell:
Sound of centuries you hear
New centuries foretell
That’s what I invite you to do: hold the baby Jesus to your ear and to your heart. Listen to what he says about neediness and vulnerability. They are inescapably part of being human, not reasons for shame.
Jesus came among us as all human beings do – as a child who needed to be held, sheltered, clothed, fed, taught and encouraged.
Though some of us are reluctant to admit it, even to ourselves, we remain dependent our whole lives. We always need to be cherished, nurtured and encouraged.
In poverty, sickness, injury and older age, we need people to do with and for us what we cannot do alone and for ourselves.
Hear him tell you again that God’s love embraces the whole world – everyone, everywhere. Even if they don’t yet trust that it is true, all people are bearers of God’s image and God’s beloved children.
Listen to what he says about how much God loves you: fully, gladly, no matter what you’ve done or who you’ve failed to be, now and forever.
Hold that baby and listen to him. He will invite you to be held by the one you hold.
Listen to Jesus; the world will go on, all the way to restoration, justice and peace. It will go where it already is – to the heart of God.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a weekly series for Advent 2020. One article was published each week for the four Sundays of Advent, with this final article offering a Christmas reflection to conclude the series. The previous articles in the series are:
Bringing Your Crumpled Hope to Advent | Merianna Harrelson
When Righteousness and Peace Kiss | Richard Wilson
Joy and Justice: Two Sides of Same Coin | Brittany Graves
Have Yourself a ‘Mary’ Little Christmas | Cory Jones
A consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC), he served previously as an assistant professor of religion at Mars Hill University, an adjunct professor at Gardner-Webb Divinity School and as pastor of several Baptist churches.