The bustle of the past few weeks slows today — unless you are trying to return or exchange a gift. It is a time of reflection and quieting the spirit. Even the relentless urge to consume — economically and physically — begins to re-set as the year comes to a close. We realize that we are more than what we possess or give. Like Mary, we ponder what is yet to come.
Ronald Rolheiser gives pondering a new respect. He says that to ponder is to hold hard things in tension, to resist easy resolution. Pondering makes us deeper persons, less given to certitude and more open to mystery. Pondering prompts us to slow down, which I admit makes me a bit anxious. I prefer full speed ahead.
The Gospel lesson for next Sunday recounts a blessed, yet strange encounter of the new parents of Jesus with sages at the temple. Joseph and Mary are faithful to observe what the law requires; so after the circumcision of the child, it was time “for their purification as the Law of Moses commanded” (Luke 2:22). Interestingly, the first manuscripts do not single Mary out for purification, as Leviticus prescribes.
The family makes their way to Jerusalem, a short distance from Bethlehem, in order to present Jesus to the Lord because “every firstborn male will be called holy to the Lord” (v. 23b). Their sacrifice of two turtledoves rather than a lamb indicates that they were among the poor of the land. Humility grounds the life of the Word made flesh.
There the holy family meets Simeon and Anna, faithful members of a remnant still hoping for a visitation from God. Luke describes Simeon as “awaiting a comfort” or consolation, a paraklësis. Full of the Holy Spirit, he recognizes the child as the promised one — the human consolation — and takes him in his arms and blesses him.
Can you imagine the scene as wrinkled hands and squinting eyes encounter the squirming newborn? He cannot believe that he has lived to see it with his own dimming eyes. It is not unlike what many have experienced over the last few days as the generations of families get acquainted. The old marvel at the young; the young bless the old by their very presence. Each claims the other in wonder.
Luke crafts a wondrous song of praise for Simeon, which speaks both of completion of God’s promise and the dismissal of the services of the old prophet. He can now depart in peace, believing that God has not forgotten Israel. It is a fitting benediction to his life, and we continue to sing it as a prayer at compline, especially in Benedictine contexts.
Simeon’s counterpart, Anna, shows up and continues both the praise and the instruction about what the life of the child will mean to her people. She sees him as the one who will bring about longed-for liberation. Some scholars have remarked that she added little to the interpretation of the meaning of the child; however, Luke chooses to include her and thereby demonstrates his appreciation for the roles of women in the birth narratives — and later in the story of the cross and the apostolic mission.
Mixed in with the glad news of messianic fulfillment is the sharpness of division. Not only will Mary’s heart be pierced by the ultimate destiny of her son, but there will be a division among the people as some receive and others reject God’s visitation through Jesus. The word of this gospel is that the one who came to bring peace will become a source of conflict and separation.
It is not really so different today. Response to Jesus does divide people. It is easy to see the chasm between those who believe that he is God’s ultimate disclosure and those who see him as one among many other prophetic figures. More pronounced in our time is the little common ground between competing parties with their discrete claims to be following Jesus. His supposed imprimatur becomes sanction for bad policy and selfish pursuits. “Good news to the poor” cannot be dismissed as only an eschatological promise, however. It is God’s message to our day, and we are charged to enact it.
In this season of pondering it would be wise to read the whole Gospel of Luke and encounter again what the lowly born babe requires. Most likely we will discern that we are drawn into his action of deliverance for all the people. It is important for us to remember that we have the power to transform the situation of many even now. They cannot wait for the end of time; neither can we.
So, we ponder anew what the Almighty can do — through us. It is God’s humble way, you know.