This is kind of an unusual story. It is the end of the infancy of Jesus, at least what we have in the gospel of Luke. We’re in the first month or so after Jesus was born. It seems that Mary and Joseph stuck around in Bethlehem area as it is close to Jerusalem and there were things that needed to be done at the temple. Mary and Joseph take their brand-new baby and present him before the elders and priest, name him publicly the name given to him before his birth-spoken by angels, and had him circumcised. These are the religious rituals, the first things that will ground Jesus in the religious community. The sacrifice was because the first born son belongs to God, but it’s his parents who will have to raise him, and raise in their religion and way of being.
Mary had to be purified to, because giving birth is messy, and while they might not have understood why, there was an understanding that blood passed on diseases, so Mary was unclean much like anyone who had contact with blood or bodies or many other things. She will wash ritually as is the custom. These are the reasons that Mary and Joseph hung around, and why they were in the Temple on this day.
There were particular areas Mary was able to go, there were rooms where those who could enter grew more and more specific. As a women, she would have a woman’s space and the courtyard. It’s there that they young family meet the prophets.
Simeon and Anna are going about their own day, not necessarily together. Simeon wasn’t even in the temple that day. There’s nothing particularly special about families arriving, rituals being done, people passing through. We assume Simeon isn’t a young man, although, the story doesn’t tell us that. It does tell us that he will live until he sees the savior, which says to me he’s been holding on to life for a while, maybe he wasn’t in the temple because it was so hard to go anywhere when you are living near the doorway to death. He was waiting and longing: for the renewal of the faith, the freedom of the city, the redemption of the people, and a revelation to the world. The Spirit of God whispers in his ear: “There, in that child, is everything you’ve been waiting for.”
Imagine being Mary: preparing for the rituals, maybe overwhelmed by the number of people in this space, planning your next move together, maybe watching the people in the courtyard, holding your baby when this wrinkled priest comes to you, as quickly as he can, eyes wide with wonder, and snatches up your baby. There’s not much you can do. He praises God, speaks to the child, and to you, and to whoever is listening: in joy, in celebration, in truth, he spoke of promises fulfilled. I think he looked at this baby Jesus and saw, as the song says, the hopes and fears of all the years met in Jesus, which is why he spoke of the falling and rising of many and looking at Mary and says: a sword will piece your heart or soul, too.
Unlike other times we hear Mary’s inner thoughts, we get none of that this time, we don’t hear that she treasured or pondered these words. But I would have some questions: what does that mean? To be broken? Wounded? What does it feel like to be spiritually gutted? What does he mean “too”?
Anna gets a back story, which is amazing! What she doesn’t get is any dialogue in our story. But what we know her father and her tribe. We know she had been married, we guess she didn’t have any children. We know that before she was really grown her husband had died and she has now spent 60ish years in the temple. She is one of the few women named as a prophet in the scriptures, the only widow. When her husband died she would have had only a few options: marry his brother-if he has one, beg, sell herself. And she chooses none of the above but to committee herself to God and worship in the temple. She would have been a staple, someone you’d see, maybe visit with, every time you came to the temple.
On this day, she began praising God and told the story of the savior who had come to the time that day as a child. She was Jesus’ first evangelist. Women are the bookends of this story, begin the narrative, bring life, and witness resurrection.
I wonder if Mary, in all her pondering, considered the last year of her life, like we sometimes do about this time at the end of a calendar year. She had seen angel in her no-where northern town, been given the wildest of news that she a women of no means would be the Godbearer. She visited her aunt Elizabeth and was present when she gave birth, grew life, traveled a lot, had this baby Jesus. And that first night, the first night, strangers, shepherds, nobodies sought Jesus out.
The last year was filled, in many ways, the same way the years before—backwater town in a backwater region. A family lineage with no connection. A girl with no power. Shepherd with no honor to give. These are margins, the edges, the poor, the forgotten. And yet, into all this, God breaks in, God becomes present, God is made flesh and blood, sinews and synapses. God comes into the world, with us, starting at the margins.
But doesn’t just stay there–God brings the margins, the hope and fear and redemption into the places of power. Brought into the most sacred of spaces in the tiny body of Jesus and in the wonder of a mother and father. Brought in to the song of a widow, placed in the mouth of an aged priest.
Simeon said Jesus would lead to the rising and falling of many, this is the beginning of the rising—making the voices of those on the margin present in the place of power.
I think about how disability advocacy organizations held protests and die-ins at DC senate offices in 2017 to protest Medicaid cuts that would significantly reduce services to the elderly and those with disabilities—groups that, as a society, have been greatly ignored, neglected, secluded, forgotten, silenced.
But lest we spend all our time thinking that it’s those, out there, who are not hearing voices. So, who are on the margin of the church? I think it’s unique to each community. In the 2020 statistical report of the UCC, 52% of clergy are women, which is awesome. But in the church universal, only 20% of all clergy in the US are women. It was just last year when pastor and author John MacArthur said of evangelist and author Beth Moore to “Go Home” having the audacity to preach and teach the Good News of Jesus. We don’t have to agree on everything, but when women’s voices aren’t heard, it can lead to all kinds of abuses.
In the UCC, 89% of the clergy are white. There are voices we aren’t hearing because they have been marginalized by systems, by history, by us. While we’ve been streaming, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we include those with different abilities: if a person who is deaf can’t be part of our worship online, or in person, how will we ever give them space to be heard.
Jesus’s little family is coming from the margins to the places of power. Jesus will be coming from the margins to the halls of power. Not to control things, but to call them to account, to call them back to caring for all their people, to hold them to the call of God through the prophets. That is what we’re called to be as church, too. That is church at its best—not when it became, becomes, wrapped up in the empire, but when it is the voice crying out and when it lifts up voices from the margins.
And it’s a hard journey, being the voice in the places of powers, even being a voice in a community that believes differently. I did some investigating on some of our neighbor church’s websites, and not one was a welcoming statement for the LGBTQIA community, even the ones where the denomination has taken a stance. Just us. In the UCC, as far as I can tell, we’re the only one between Waukesha and Madison, Mukwonago and Kewaskum. We are the voice in the face of the powers telling queer kids, and adults, they are loved.
It doesn’t come without a cost: the prophets were rejected, Jesus would be killed by the state, Mary would be devastated at the loss of her son, Emmanuel—we got a little had written note over the summer telling us to take down our rainbow sticker—some costs are greater than others. But what we know, what we experience in Jesus, what we have in the resurrection, the falling and rising of Jesus, is that rejection, grief, hatred, even death is not the end—love is. Love is the beginning and the end, roots all things, calls all things back to love.
We are both Anna and Simeon and the shepherds and the little family—we are both being called to see who is missing in our community—who is left on the margins, and we are called to bring the voices of those with us into the world that would often rather maintain its way of functioning, maintain its power, maintain the way it has always been.
But Christmas is about the upside down, the turning over, the renewing hope and the restoring of God’s work. It’s about the rising up on the poor and marginalized, the falling down of those seeking power to serve themselves.
Preacher and Theologian Howard Thurman wrote the this poem: When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among others, To make music in the heart.
This is the work of Christmas, it back here, a month into Jesus’ life, it begins again today.