First Sunday of Christmas (Year B)

Falling and rising of many

Simeon and Anna
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

December 27, 2020

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Commentary on Luke 2:22-40

This special day, celebrating the Presentation of Jesus at the temple in accordance with the law, is filled with fruitful directions for the preacher.

  • The word for the revelation Simeon received (chrematiza) is also in the story of Joseph receiving notice in a dream not to return to Herod after Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:12) and in the angel’s appearance to Cornelius, the centurion, telling him to send for Peter (Acts 10:22). The Spirit imparts visions of a new order of reality that both saves Joseph’s little family, all of Cornelius’ household, and finally “the salvation” revealed to Simeon.
  • When Simeon speaks of “the falling and the rising of many,” he encapsulates Jesus’ destiny, reversing the expected pattern of human life which we are accustomed to think of as success preceding failure.
  • Jesus will be “a sign that will be opposed,” echoing the prophet Isaiah: “He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against … a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem … They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken” (Isaiah 8:14-15). This is an image of Jesus which is not the friendly guy who does not confront evil. This is the biblical Jesus who speaks harsh words to those who cheat the poor.
  • Simeon’s response to taking Jesus in his arms are the words that conclude communion in the worship of many mainline traditions, the Nunc Dimittis (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 113): “Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace …” We become Simeon when we sing his song. 
  • We hear in Anna’s prophetic voice the voice of Hannah who longed for a child as well (1 Samuel 1-2). In gratitude to God for giving Samuel to her and her husband Elkanah, she sings what becomes a model for Mary’s Magnificat. God’s power to effect what seems impossible is good news for those in need.  

The two little words, “falling and rising,” in this seemingly straightforward story may seem inconsequential, but because the ideas are repeated, a working preacher sits up and takes notice. In normal language, we would speak of something “rising and falling.” Anna, we would say, worshipped “day and night.” We might explore a reason for this reversal, putting the fall before the being raised up. 

These words are keyed to struggles and sorrows, in keeping with the truth of human life. Simeon tells Mary that “a sword will pierce” her soul (her psyche). She will experience great pain, thorough agony, and the madness of those who witness injustice and are unable to stop it. When we who live on this side of the crucifixion and resurrection hear Simeon’s words, we have a way to know something of what Mary endures watching her son die. Or maybe we can never know; at least we honor the torment. She is the mother of all the disappeared and oppressed, the imprisoned and tortured protesters throughout history. She stands beside his cross. She watches. Before the rising is the falling. Before the glory of God is the cross. 

Mirroring the order—down before up, cross before triumph—is the fasting and praying Anna practiced “night and day.” We first learn that she is up all night and only then do we learn that she is also in prayer all day. She is keeping vigil at all hours, waiting for the arrival of the one who will redeem Israel. These two prophets know what God is about: salvation comes through confrontation. The sign of the Messiah is opposition. There is no resurrection without the crucifixion. There is no unbinding without the binding. That the hard reality of repentance precedes forgiveness tells us plainly that there is no forgiveness where there is no fault. 

The fact of injustice, pain, hurt, denigration, want, and death mean that God is eternally at work to bring healing to all facets of our lives. The Lord is at work in the world just as Mary sings about it when the angel announces God’s favor on her. She gives thanks that God brings down the powerful, lifts up the lowly, feeds the hungry, and sends “the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). All these powerful actions mean to reverse normal worldly expectations. 

Not in spite of, but because of struggle and destruction, the Lord, the Holy Spirit, brings consolation and deliverance. The Holy Spirit guides the faithful to meet the Messiah in order to take on the same mission: to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. Just as the Spirit “rested” on Simeon (and on Joseph and Cornelius), the Spirit rests on the baptized in every age, compelling prayer and fasting, urging us to righteous deeds, calling us to see through or within our failures a pathway to the good. The Lord uses the wicked ways of all creation in order to bring about what nurtures and creates peace, and thus is Simeon able to sing of a peace which has come to him because he has seen the savior. 

When we end our worship with the words of Simeon, we acknowledge that we, too, have seen the Lord. We have been given a vision of the peace Simeon knew after such a long wait in the temple. We have heard the word of the Lord, confessed our sin, and received forgiveness. Whether or not we are able to be present to each other in person in the late months of 2020 because of a pandemic––whether or not we are given the bread of life in person––we receive through God’s Word the promise of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. 

This is enough for us to sing thanksgiving for this vision of the Lord’s real presence in our lives. We sing Simeon’s own experience when we sing his words.