First Sunday of Christmas (Year B)

In many ways, Luke 2:22-40 is the after story that is rarely shared during Advent season — at least, not theatrically.

Let the sea roar
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. - Psalm 98:7 (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

December 31, 2017

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Commentary on Luke 2:22-40

In many ways, Luke 2:22-40 is the after story that is rarely shared during Advent season — at least, not theatrically.

For many churches, their dramatic presentations of the nativity stop at the scene of baby Jesus in the manger surrounded by angels declaring, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those who he favors” (Luke 1:14, New Revised Standard Version). Parents snap pictures. Grandparents beam with pride. The congregation laughs in delight as the youngest among them parades — sometimes quite sheepishly — across the stage as lambs, shepherds, and innkeepers. The curtain falls and everyone disburses to private celebrations among family and friends.

Today’s lectionary, however, reminds the preacher that there is yet more to share about the birth and purpose of Jesus in the world than simply the nativity scene. In Luke 2, readers encounter some of the quintessential features of Luke’s storyline that are not present in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, or John. Literary devices such as story doublets and the juxtaposition of male and female characters recur through the Gospel of Luke. In just the first two chapters, readers encounter multiple configurations of Luke’s gender contrasts and parallel story forms. For example, Zechariah receives the birth announcement for John the Baptist (Luke 1:10-23), while Mary receives the birth announcement of Jesus (1:26-38). Similarly, Mary sings praise to God affirming the significance of Jesus’ birth (1:46-55) and Zechariah spoke prophetically about the significance of John the Baptist in the unfolding Jesus drama (1:67-79).

Not only are there parallels between Zechariah and Mary in the Gospel of Luke, but there also exists contrasts between couples. The story of John the Baptist’s birth emerges from the marital relationship between Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-7, 23-25, 57-65). Similarly, and yet slightly different, the story of Jesus’ birth emerges from the marital arrangement between Mary and Joseph (1:26-27; 2:4-7, 16). The Simeon and Anna story is also a type of coupling, albeit one that diverges from the trend. In the case of Simeon and Anna, there is no marital arrangement between them. Yet, like Mary and Zechariah, the Simeon and Anna accounts have parallel responses — public speech (2:28, 38) — to the same event — the presentation of Jesus in the temple (2:22-24).

Readers should begin noticing how the birth account is not the only marker of Luke’s masterful literary artistry. Of particular interest for the season of Advent is how Luke 2:22-40 brings to conclusion one aspect of Luke’s theology only to kick off a new aspect. Luke maintains his literary use of doublets by juxtaposing the observance of two purity rites — circumcision and temple presentation — and the declarative work of two interpreters — Simeon and Anna.

Unlike the birth story, there is no parallel account of the Simeon-Anna pericope in Matthew. This section is unique to Luke and is essential in determining the contours of Luke’s plotline and theological significance during the season of Advent. What does this story add to the portrayal of Jesus and the theological vision this particular gospel writer casts at Jesus’ birth and early beginnings? In one respect, the story of Jesus’ circumcision and temple presentation as well as Jesus’ youthful engagement in the temple (2:40-47) portray him as a person of Israel. There is no question that Jesus is an observant Jew, even at his birth and into his youth. Indeed, his Jewish identity is reinforced by his mother’s observance of purity laws related to childbirth (2:24; Leviticus 12:6-8).

Yet, the writer does not halt his depiction of Jesus’ identity and origins at the level of piety. Luke makes clear where in Jewish society Jesus’ observant family exists. It is among the poor. The two turtledoves Jesus’ family presents are the sacrifices designated for the poor, according to the Levitical code (Leviticus 5:7, 12:8, 14:22). It is easy to miss the significance of this brief detail. Many liberation readings of the gospel of Luke, notice Jesus’ affinity and attentiveness to the needs of the poor. For instance, Jesus speaks of the poor in his prophetic inaugural speech (Luke 4:18; see also 7:22) and in his sermon on the plain (Luke 6:20). Jesus juxtaposes poor to rich people, alluding to the poor having access to the kingdom (Luke 16:19-3; 18:18-27; 21:1-4).

In Luke 2, however, the issue of poverty and the gospel is much more than simply a “cause” Jesus champions. The location and experiences of the poor, is the experience of Jesus from his infancy. From Luke’s perspective, when Jesus talks about the poor, he is talking about himself. Thus, interpreters of Luke 2 should not only pay attention to the prophetic proclamation that Jesus is the Christ who was also a practicing Jew. Readings about the birth story of Jesus and his youth, should also include recognition and wrestling with Luke’s narrative portrayal of Jesus’ beginnings being from the economic margins of his own community.

Yet, Luke’s gospel does not dwell on the issue poverty — at least not here. It is a detail of Jesus’ family situation that readers are expected to know and hold lightly in the back of their heads. In the meantime, the story moves forward to a more celebratory moment in which songs, passionate declarations, and high expectations are shared publicly. Simeon and Anna introduce into the story a new air of expectancy and excitement. Up to this point, the narrative expectation was focused on the birth moments of Jesus and John the Baptist. With Simeon and Anna, the object of expectancy shifts to what Jesus will do. In the words of Simeon to Mary, Jesus is “destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed” (Luke 2:34).

Together, Simeon and Anna serve as external interpreters of the significance of Jesus’ birth. Mary and Zechariah represented insider prophetic witnesses. They received directly divine prophecy of the births of Jesus and John as players in the unfolding salvation history. In turn, Mary and Zechariah articulated songs of praise that interpreted the birth narratives of Jesus and John within the context of the deliverance and salvation of God’s people — but again, they did this as insider prophetic witnesses.

In contrast, Simeon and Anna represent outsider prophetic attestations on the life and work of Jesus. Whereas Anna spoke of the “redemption of Jerusalem” from the Temple, the Benedictus of Zechariah spoke about God’s redemption of Israel (Luke 1:68). Similarly, whereas Simeon spoke of Jesus as destined to be the glory of God’s people, Israel (Luke 2:32), the angelic witnesses to the shepherds displayed the glory of the Lord as part of their prophetic act and message (Luke 2:9).

This account is a wonderful invitation for our churches to consider the diversity of messages, voices, and locations among us as we celebrate the birth of Jesus as the Christ. The story of Jesus’ birth and early life in Luke makes room for a variety of bodies and proximities to the gospel message. It makes room for women and men. It makes room for youth and elder. It makes room for the poor, disappointed, and unsuspecting. The good news of Jesus’ birth is that insiders and outsiders of our immediate communities and families can carry the good news of God’s salvation, liberation, acceptance not just to others in the world, but to us as well. Like Mary pondering the words of Simeon in the Temple, even contemporary preachers of the good news with their own stories of divine encounter, need to be reminded of what else God can do.