First Sunday of Christmas (Year B)

Today, some find the Christmas season so overwhelming, church attendance and worship are an intrusion in the scheduled events.

January 1, 2012

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Commentary on Luke 2:22-40

Today, some find the Christmas season so overwhelming, church attendance and worship are an intrusion in the scheduled events.

The idea of waiting on and witnessing to the intrusion of a faithful God interferes with holiday shopping and socializing. Planning for the sermon this first Sunday after Christmas requires intentionality by preachers to thread together the familiar episodes of Christmas Day with the subsequent arrival of peace on earth.

From the Guest Room to the House of God

One thread is the civil/sacred responsibility demonstrated by Mary and Joseph. The narrative takes time for both the municipal and the religious. Just as they travelled to their family’s community to fulfill the requirements of being counted in the census for the government, they travelled to their faith community to fulfill the requirements of presenting a newborn before God. Their experience of hospitality shapes their practices of godly devotion.

The two stories of Jesus in the Temple, not unlike the parallel accounting of the birth and ministry of John and Jesus enable Luke to provide context for the events about to be rehearsed. In a constant reversal of expectation, Luke first narrates the faithfulness of Jesus’ family and his orthodox upbringing. In just a few verses (representing a few years), Jesus’ temple presence will be noted as a disconnection from his earthly parents.

Some interpret the scene in verses 40-52 with in-front-of-the-text concerns about disobedient children and an arrogant boy Jesus. But entering the narrative here, in verse 22, we witness the religious observance of Mary and Joseph, who teach Jesus to be observant of the Law from the time of his birth. The perspective Luke presents in these practices of devotion provides context for the critique Jesus later lays against religious practices that undermine love of God and neighbor. 

Set against the hospitality extended to the couple when they arrived in Bethlehem, this visit to the temple serves as another witness to the presence of the peace of God. Having experienced welcome and reception by their community, Mary and Joseph obediently respond as the children of God who are as comfortable in the House of God as they have been made to feel in the guest room of their distant relatives. Throughout this narrative we learn the reciprocal nature of Jesus’ observance of the Law.

This background is significant to establish that Jesus does not abandon his parents teaching, but in fact fulfills all that is required of the Law. Scholars have given attention to the many criticisms Jesus lays against the empty traditions practiced by religious leaders and the empty rituals they hold in high regard. When Jesus, as an adult, evaluates the practices of the religious leaders, he assumes reciprocal expressions of love of neighbor and love of God. The tension Jesus has with the Law is never that of an outsider, but as one who has faithfully observed the divine expectations. Practices of the law that subvert God’s command to love are unacceptable requirements, and Jesus repeatedly condemns those who attempt to flaunt their holiness before God without hospitality toward neighbor. Luke depicts a temple open to all that seek the presence of God, distinguishing between pausing to worship and honor God from practices that oppress and dishonor others.

O Come all ye Faithful 

Framed by the story of his observant upbringing, Luke presents two regulations — the purification of the mother and the dedication of the firstborn male child. Mary and Joseph are faithful to keep the religious rituals of Jewish Law, which requires that every male child be circumcised eight days after birth. When the time comes for the child to be brought to the Temple, again, the baby is presented. In this manner, Jesus, the firstborn male child, is bought back from God — who claimed possession of every firstborn in Israel during the Passover. In obedience, Jesus’ parents brought him to the temple to be presented, offering the prescribed sacrifice for his redemption (see Numbers 3:13 and Exodus 13:2).

We observe from their offering, the lowliness of Jesus family and their marginalized position in society. Indeed, hope seems most evident in places of extreme poverty when those with the least seem to continue to embrace the rituals of an abundant life.  But here Luke also portrays the one who redeems the world himself — the firstborn of Israel — as redeemed before God, serving as the new paschal lamb.

Another correlation throughout Luke’s account is the practice of partnering women and men as witnesses to the presence of God that leads to peace. Framed by Mary and Joseph’s obedience to God, Jesus is recognized and affirmed as God’s agent of redemption by eminently reliable persons. Simeon testifies to the faithfulness of God. The sight of the child, or the mere arrival of the promised one, stirs from within Simeon a song born of the peace in knowing God will indeed bring glory to the people, Israel, and provide “a light of revelation to the Gentiles.” The presence of the long-expected one granted sufficient peace, that the prophetic announcement of impending opposition and suffering could not diminish the joy Simeon experienced by the promise fulfilled.

Similarly, though Luke does not quote the words of Anna, he conveys their content as confirming the arrival of the one who sets the people free. She, not Simeon, is the prophet. Both have faithfully awaited the intrusion of a faithful God. Both now witness to the arrival of peace on earth. Our announcements of Christ’s birth into human history should render sufficient joy that the present circumstances cannot diminish the intrusive signs of God’s peace.

All the while, Luke keeps Jesus central through this scene. The child does not so much as whimper, and yet, all that is described centers on Jesus as a means to glorify God. The occasion of Mary’s purification becomes Jesus’ presentation. As important as it is to draw in our listeners to the scene of real persons enacting a very real moment, this theo-centric Christology challenges our proclamation to bring into focus the arrival of God’s peace demonstrated in the life of Jesus. With all the attention to persons and practices, Luke orients the narrative to the fulfillment of the promise that God indeed is with us.