In most circumstances, the birth of a child is cause for great joy. Amidst all the excitement and stress, there remains a spiritual quality to the experience as a new living being arrives in the world and joins his or her family. People with religious belief will view this experience through the lens of that belief. Even those with no faith, will often be touched by a sense of the divine at the birth of their child. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why in our society today, when the majority have no settled faith, requests for christenings in church still come from many outside the congregation. For me, it is amazing and sometimes a bit disturbing, that people who have very little understanding of the Christian message and no real intention of believing it still want to embrace it at a service of baptism.
When Jesus was born and in the Jewish culture of his day, there were three ceremonies to mark the birth of a male child, all laid down in the law of Moses in the old testament. The first was circumcision, the removal of part of the male foreskin, carried out on the eighth day after birth. It remains a custom for Jews to this day. It originates as sign of God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17.10) and is enshrined in the law book of Leviticus. (12.3) Second was the rite of redemption by payment of an offering of five shekels. This was due for the first born male child. (Numbers 18.16) This could be done anytime after the first month. Lastly was the purification of the mother which following the birth of a male child, took place at forty days. Prior to this, the mother was considered unclean and banned from any public worship.
It is interesting that it is the non-Jewish Gentile writer Luke who alone in the new testament tells us how Jesus underwent each of these ceremonies. On no less than five occasions in chapter 2 of his gospel, he tells that in Jesus’ case, all the observances of the Jewish law were carried out. (vs 22,23,24,27 & 39) His lack of Jewish background may well show through in that he appears to confuse the redemption payment and the purification of Mary in his description of their visit to the temple forty days after Jesus’ birth. Mary is very conscious of the spiritual nature of her son’s birth. It had come at the instigation of God and now she, along with Joseph, should fulfil all that law required of them as new parents.
Mary and Joseph make the relatively short journey from Bethlehem to the temple in Jerusalem. The temple building stood in a large open area with public squares and many shops and outlets cashing in on the pilgrim trade. The temple had its own currency which necessitated the presence of money changers in booths, all competing with one another. There were no doubt confusing rates of exchange designed to catch people out. Thirty years later, Jesus would confront them. There was also an area which would have resembled a livestock market or agricultural show where the various animals required for sacrifice could be purchased. In order to be purified, Mary needed a pair of turtle doves or pigeons. It is often assumed that Mary would have had the pigeons because they were the cheaper alternative, but the text does not actually say that. Instead, as Luke records this story, drawing on material which can only have come from Mary herself, he concentrates far less on her than he does on Jesus. Indeed, the ceremony which was meant for her purification becomes the time of the infant Jesus’ blessing.
So, let us use our imaginations for a moment. Place yourself in that temple court. There is all manner of life here. Priests, pharisees, religious of one kind and another strolling around in their robes like a cathedral close. Roman soldiers might also be on patrol. Rich and poor would mingle together, those from Jerusalem and northerners from Galilee. Foreign Jews might also be present, making their pilgrimage speaking their native languages. Mary and Joseph enter, she carrying the baby, he may be considerably older. No one takes much notice. It was a common sight as women came in for their purification. Then an elderly man who has been resting in the shade under a tree gets up and makes his way unsteadily towards them. You feel alarm as he reaches out to take the child from them. Is he a child snatcher or will he drop the baby? No, he holds the child firmly and gently in his arms an utters strangely familiar words adapted from the second Isaiah: ‘Lord, may your servant go in peace, according to your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared for all peoples, a light to reveal you to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.’ (Luke 2.29-32)
Simeon has been sitting under that tree since he was able to give up earning a living. He could devote himself prayer and the worship of the temple. He was looking for the ‘consolation’ of Israel, for the time when God would redeem his people from the misery of foreign oppression and send the Messiah. Importantly, he is full of the Holy Spirit. It is that Spirit which prompts him to cross to Mary and Joseph, to utter these words over the infant Christ and bless. It is the Holy Spirit’s presence in Simeon which diverts the attention from Mary’s purification to the nature of who Jesus is. Through the Spirit and the words of scripture, Simeon extends what the angels had said to the shepherds about Jesus; he is to be for all peoples; a light to reveal God to the non-Jewish Gentiles and the glory, the consolation of Israel. By the same Spirit, he also has the word of prophecy which helps us understand from the outset that Jesus will be a suffering Messiah and that Mary will share in that suffering. Simeon can now die in peace. He has recognised that for which he longed. He held his saviour in his arms; your Saviour and mine.
At this point, we can reflect on the way God works. Simeon was not a cool young dude of the type sought after by media organisations anxious to communicate. He was an elderly man, full of years and wisdom but most importantly of all, devout and full of the Holy Spirit. He was also a layman. There is nothing in Luke’s script to suggest that he was a priest or rabbi or any other kind of religious professional. He spent his days in the temple courts from choice and because of his conviction that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Christ. As Simeon affirms, Jesus is for all peoples, without exception. Given that we live in an age which greatly prizes youth and honours the professional, we can feel devalued if we are neither of these. Even the church is prone to give out that message. But as Paul reminds the Corinthians when they were tempted to be in awe of the apostles, ‘God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.’ (1 Corinthians 1.27) Your devoutness, your faith, your being filled with the Spirit is what counts with God and he uses us all regardless of age, status and the like.
As we reflected at the outset, the birth of a child prompts spirituality, sometimes in the people who would not admit to being spiritual. In a secular post Christian culture, many families still come to church after the birth of a child, although their motives may be mixed. It maybe they just want to celebrate the birth of the child, please their grandparents or possibly seek God’s blessing, however they perceive it. One thing that has faded is the purification of mum, the churching of women! But when they come, what do they find in our ‘temple’? Is it full of the ‘glory of the Lord’ as it was in Ezekiel’s vision in the old testament reading? (44.4) Are there the devout, filled with the Spirit of God ready to welcome and bless? Will they found just a venue where a service will be performed or sense the presence of God? It’s not just up to the professionals. That’s the responsibility of us all to be the church not just go to church for we are all called to be ‘living stones…built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ (1 Peter 2.5)
5th Before Lent/Candlemas 03.02.2019