Completing a life

Spiritual discernment comes after a lifetime of learning to pay attention to the presence of God. Without discernment, we will miss the abundant gifts of God.

By Molly T. Marshall

The most detailed stories of Christ’s Nativity come from Luke, who includes lovely vignettes in the early childhood of Jesus. Luke has shown the parents of Jesus to be faithful to the laws of Rome. Now he shows their faithfulness to the laws of Israel.

It was customary to present the firstborn male to the Lord. Making an offering for the purification of the mother was also a routine ritual. There is a bit of irony about this procedure following the birth of the one who would “purify the descendants of Levi” (Malachi 3:3). Obedient to the tradition, they make their way to the temple.

Entering, they encounter two figures, Simeon and Anna, who could have stepped off the pages of the First Testament. Reading Luke’s description of Simeon as one who was righteous and devout, upon whom the Spirit rested, we realize that here is a man who has lived as God intended.

Simeon has continued to look for the “consolation” of Israel when others had given up believing the Messiah would ever come. Anna is his counterpart — at home in the temple, constant in prayer, obedient and led by the Spirit. She also expects the Messiah to come.

It is a remarkable scene: the wizened Simeon, hands shaking with age and delight, squinting through cataracts, takes the pink, squirming newborn in his arms and praises God. He recognizes that God has been faithful to the prophetic word spoken long centuries ago. Simeon also realizes God’s kindness in honoring his deepest longing to see “your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.”

Simeon then presents his life back to God: “Now you are dismissing your servant in peace.” He is completely satisfied, ready to die. His words, the Nunc Dimittis, comprise the prayer of completion, the final prayer of the evening at Benedictine monasteries.

Anna also perceives who the child is and responds in praise to God. Her spiritual sensitivity is acute, and she has been called a prophet. Long years of prayer and attentive waiting allows Anna to recognize the one for whom she has hoped. Her deepest longing has been fulfilled.

The scene closes and we are left wondering what happened to these saints. Was Simeon’s entreaty answered? Did Anna remain in the temple for the rest of her days?

We do perceive, however, that their lives had reached a sense of completion in being used of God to identify and welcome Jesus. No doubt their welcome was instructive to his parents.

The sensitivity that characterized Simeon and Anna came through regular practices of prayer, worship and study of the Scriptures. God honored their fidelity, just as we should honor those in our midst who display such spiritual maturity.

This morning I will attend a funeral of a beloved elder in my church. He was 92 years old, a leader in women’s health issues. Quietly and professionally he has gone about his life doing good.

Having survived a harrowing period of service in World War II, he valued life, both his and others. In his later years, he devoted support to a hospital in Nigeria that specializes in fistula repair, that bane of many women there.

He had a special capacity to welcome youth to the family farm east of Kansas City. Generations of youth from our church have spent time there, engulfed in the love of this generous family. Their legacy will be the capacity to enrich the lives of others.

God seeks to get into our arms, our hearts. The early church father Origen urged returning such affection to God.

Let us too stand in the Temple and hold God’s Son and embrace him; and that we may deserve leave to withdraw and start on our way towards a better land, let us pray to God, the all-powerful, and to the little Jesus himself, whom we so much want to speak to and hold in our arms. His are glory and power now and always. Amen.

At the threshold of a new year, I am reflecting on what it means to live in such a way as to recognize the movement of God in the world. Practicing attentiveness is important lest we miss what the Spirit is illumining. And it will surely take us to a “better land” if we journeyed more closely with Christ.

The gift of another year is precious, and we acknowledge that we cannot complete it fully apart from the consolation God provides in Jesus, through the Spirit. As another ancient writer, St. Athanasius put it: “He became as we are that we might become as he is.”

May it be so for all of us!          

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.