By the Rev’d Andrew Coyle
Season: The 1st Sunday after Christmas
Readings: Isaiah 61:10-62:3 | Galatians 4:4-7 | Luke 2:22-40
So, today we have this story of Mary and Joseph going to the temple. It starts off as a pretty ordinary story. They are simply doing what is required of them under Jewish Law, presenting Jesus, their first-born male child, to God, and making the appropriate sacrifice. But in the course of this ordinary everyday ritual, they have two encounters which reveal the depth of the divine presence in our everyday lives. They meet Simeon and Anna, both of whom speak of the extraordinary future that is present in the child Jesus.
Now, Mary and Joseph may have been puzzled by their remarks, but perhaps not entirely surprised. After all, angels and others had been saying things like this to them even before Jesus was born. For them, this would have been one more in a list of prophecies to ponder. For us though, those words of Simeon and Anna invite us into a moment of recognition, a moment of affirmation of God’s presence in the world.
Picture the scene. Simeon is holding Jesus in his arms, and then he offers praise to God, saying, “…my eyes have seen your salvation.” And in that cradling of the baby and through his words, Simeon gives us a sense of what our salvation looks like. Our salvation looks like the child Jesus.
Now, we might pause for a bit and think about just what that means. Jesus doesn’t begin his public ministry until some thirty years later. Right at this point, as a child, Jesus hasn’t performed any miracles of healing, hasn’t fed the multitudes, hasn’t proclaimed the radical love and justice of the kingdom of God by any word or action, hasn’t been stripped, beaten and hung up to die, and has not been raised from the dead. He is just a child. And while it is true that when Simeon speaks his words to Mary, he is speaking words of prophecy, of future destiny, right at that moment he is also speaking in the present tense, of someone who is just a child. Our salvation looks like a child.
What does that mean? Well, with no deeds as yet to speak for him, with no words yet to form meaning, his personality hardly visible, we are left with the bare fact of his humanity. Our salvation lies in the simple truth that Jesus was born a human being. And I think that tells us at least two things.
First, it tells us something about God. Without any idea yet of Jesus’ personality or potential, without any words or actions to his name, the birth of Jesus tells us that God loves us and wants to be known by us. The birth of Jesus, quite literally in fact, humanizes God. Jesus makes God known to us in a way that is seeable, touchable, tangible, present.
In Jesus, God is so very present. You could be near him. You could reach out and touch him, take hold of him, feel him, hear him. And Simeon and Anna are among the first in a long line of people who do just that, who reach out and touch him. Simeon takes him in his arms, but others will also feel his touch. He takes a little girl by the hand and tells her to get up, and she rises from sickness into renewed life. He touches the eyes of a blind man with his hands and with his own spit, and that man sees again. A woman touches the hem of his cloak, and she too is healed of the hemorrhages that have troubled her for years. In Jesus, God is touchable, tangible, present.
Through Jesus, we begin to understand that God desires to be near us, to be known by us, to be touched by us, to have us reach out towards him, and to be so very present to us. And we get all of this, not from anything that Jesus says or does, but from the simple fact of his birth, his humanity. In the birth of Jesus, God is present to us, present for us.
A second thing that the birth of Jesus tells us is that our salvation is intimately tied up with our own humanity. God has come among us in human form to live as we live, to experience life with us in all its wonder and sorrow, and to lead us into a new appreciation of what it means to be truly human.
I like the words of Irenaeus. In the 3rd century, he wrote, “In Christ, God has come close to us, so that we might come close to God.” Out of love, God called us to life in God’s own image, and in Christ, God came to renew us in that image, to show us how to live so that we might fulfill our purpose and so reflect the love that brought us to birth.
I also like the words that come to us in the Letter to the Hebrews. There, Jesus is described as “the pioneer of our salvation,” the one who leads us back to God and leads us back to ourselves. The one who leads us back to an appreciation of our God-madness, our God-likeness, our God-blessedness, our God-calledness, our God-lovedness.
And all this, God does in Jesus, without Jesus having said a word or done anything other than be a baby. God came to be like us because God first made us in God’s own likeness, to be known and loved. And God was born among us in Jesus, into this world that we share, to let us know that God is in the world, that God is present to us and for us, and is near to us.