Today we mark a strange and ancient feast, Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation. 40 days after Christmas we are invited back to the story of Jesus’ infancy, as Jesus is presented in the temple. His family marks the tradition, practiced by Jewish families for centuries. They give thanks the child has lived to his 40th day.
There in the temple, Jesus and his family have two surprising encounters with Simeon and then with the prophet Anna. The story of the presentation is the first story Luke tells after Jesus’ birth. Just two verses after the shepherds and angels, Luke brings us here to the temple. Mary and Joseph hear a confirmation of the proclamation of the angels. The parents are amazed.
We know nothing else about either of the characters Luke introduces. Anna and Simeon appear nowhere else in the Gospels, nowhere else in Scripture, nowhere in the archeological or historical record. All we know about them comes from Luke.
And I want to suggest to you this morning, that Luke is less interested in their historical biography than in what Anna and Simeon represent. Luke invites us to read this passage allegorically. The Gospel pushes us to the question of meaning: what do Anna and Simeon tell us about Jesus?
Here’s the crib note for today’s sermon:
Knowing Jesus requires a hope that refuses to die and a bravery earned through vulnerability.
A hope that refuses to die.
Simeon, Luke tells us, has been waiting. He has been waiting for the restoration of Israel. This is a man who knows what it is to wish for a different world.
Remember, Simeon, and Mary, and Joseph, all of Israel/Palestine live under the power of Rome. The people are taxed to pay for Rome’s mighty army. That same army keeps watch, ensures there is no popular uprising. Simeon is subject to Rome.
Simeon stands in for all of us who are frustrated. Simeon stands in for all of us who feel like our vote doesn’t count. Simeon represents all of us human beings caught in the awful cycles of the news, who are tired of the injustice. Simeon comes to the temple as an emblem of resistance, as an emblem of the person who knows the world as it is, unjust, unfair, corrupt, it cannot stand.
Simeon has received a word from the Spirit of God. “Wait. Your consolation is coming. The world as it is will give way to the world as it shall be. Have hope Simeon.”
When Simeon encounters Jesus, he bursts into song: “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…for mine eyes have seen the salvation.” In this tiny child, just a month and a half old, Simeon sees his hope fulfilled. Jesus will be a light to enlighten the Gentiles. Jesus will be the glory of his own people, Israel.
These words of Simeon have echoed through the centuries. They are sung as part of the evening service, or recited if you’re home by yourself with your prayer book. They are words of comfort. They are words of justification. Simeon represents a hope that refuses to die. Faced with oppression, faced with overwhelming odds, faced with intransigence, Simeon’s hope refuses to die until his eyes have seen the salvation he knows will come. Then he can say, “now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” Simeon’s great hope is fulfilled in Jesus.
To know Jesus is to know, in the words of the late Bill Coffin, that seemingly powerless love will conquer loveless power.
Simeon’s faith is the faith of the spirituals. Simeon’s hope is the hope of a people held down by power.
The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray was the first African American woman ordained an Episcopal priest. She was also an attorney who helped lay the legal framework for Brown v. Board of education. She helped desegregate Alabama juries. She is one of the too often unsung heroes of our American story.
Pauli Murray was also a poet. She wrote these lines about hope:
Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty—
A word whispered with the wind,
A dream of forty acres and a mule,
A cabin of one’s now and a moment to rest,
A name and place for one’s children
And children’s children at last…
Hope is a song in a weary throat.
Hope is a song in a weary throat, St. Pauli tells us.
Simeon’s words have been sung by weary throats, in the hours when life has been rough. Simeon’s hope still echoes when governments fail, when corruption reigns. Simeon’s hope, the hope that is found in Christ, is a hope that refuses to die. Simeon’s hope is a defiant hope. It will not be silenced. It will not be moved.
And When Simeon speaks, Luke isn’t done.
No, Luke isn’t done.
After Simeon comes Anna.
Bravery Earned through Vulnerability
Anna, Luke tells us is a widow. The word carries more weight in Greek and Aramaic than in our own language. That Anna is a widow means she is vulnerable. First century Jewish customs around marriage would have dictated, if another eligible family member of the woman’s husband remained alive, she would have been remarried. Widows had reached the end of the line. Widows were unable to inherit property. Widows were seen as desperate. Luke tells us that Anna spends day and night in the temple. It is reasonable to ask whether Anna had anywhere else she could go.
The world could have judged Anna. The world might have seen Anna has someone who lost God’s favor, someone who angered the almighty and brought her suffering upon herself. Luke doesn’t.
Luke gives Anna a title. Luke calls her a “prophet.” Luke tells us that this woman, who we would likely call homeless, she is the bearer of God’s words. Anna echoes the hopeful poetry of Simeon.
Luke chooses a vulnerable woman, someone on life’s edge, to be among the first evangelists, the first to tell others the good news found in Jesus. This is unsurprising for Luke. Luke often gives wisdom, and wit, and faith to women. Luke’s female characters are often the wise, the faithful, the ones who understand when the men don’t.
We still gender vulnerability. We align strength with masculinity and weakness with femininity. We are taught to hide our weakness. The Gospel inverts the world’s values. The Gospel often does.
Brené Brown, the social researcher and writer, and Episcopalian has questioned the way we think of strength, “we’re all taught to be brave,” she says, “and then we’re all warned, growing up, to not be vulnerable. And so that’s the rub…when you have bravery without vulnerability, that’s when you get what we’re looking at today: all bluster, all posturing, no real courage.”
Notice Luke doesn’t give Jesus’ proclamation to anyone in power. Luke doesn’t have the high priest anoint Jesus. The priests are too busy playing the political games between the Roman governor and the temple treasury. They are too busy chasing power, proving their own power, to bother with this Jesus.
It is Anna, the widow, the old woman, who is free to see Jesus.
Anna models a bravery with vulnerability, just as Jesus will model bravery and vulnerability. To know Jesus is to be brave enough to be vulnerable.
Today we encounter two unlikely characters, Simeon and the prophet Anna. Today the Gospel gives us a clue what it will take to know this Jesus. Knowing Jesus necessitates a hope that refuses to die, and a bravery earned through vulnerability.
Neither of those qualities, defiant hope nor vulnerable bravery, are readily taught by the world. I know what we do in this church, the way we follow Jesus seems odd. While the world has moved on from Christmas, on to Valentine’s Day. (I even saw Easter eggs for sale the other day.) Here, we aren’t yet ready to let go of the Christ child. Just forty days ago we told a story that changes our world.
Just forty days ago, we remembered that God’s love for us, God’s love for creation, meant God chose to step into our world. God became incarnate, dwelled among us. Today the prophet Anna and Simeon the righteous reiterate the power of the Christmas proclamation. Simeon tell us, to know Jesus is to have a hope that refuses to die. The prophet Anna encourages us, what the world calls weak, God counts as brave. True bravery is earned through vulnerability.
That message of Jesus still surprises us, still has the capacity to transform our world. Have hope. Be vulnerably brave. Amen.