Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
I have some bad news for you all. For those of you who don’t know, Jesus was not born on December 25th. It actually doesn’t really tell us, in the Bible, when Jesus was born, and quite frankly that didn’t matter much to the first Christians. The very first Christians didn’t even celebrate Christmas at all. And when Christians did first start celebrating the birth of Christ, it was actually on January 6th – which we now celebrate as Epiphany. In fact, it wasn’t until around the 5thcentury that anyone celebrated Christmas on December 25th, and for the longest time people continued to celebrate it on January 6th, especially in the Eastern churches. To this day, the Armenian Eastern Orthodox church still celebrates the birth of Christ on January 6th. But, believe it or not, Jesus wasn’t born on January 6th either. Modern historical scholarship says that Jesus was likely born sometime in the spring – in March, probably. But back then they didn’t know that; they had no idea when Jesus was actually born. And so they chose a date based on a popular belief that Jesus’ death and conception were at the same time in the calendrical year and also on the fact that the Winter Solstice was a major pagan holiday, and was best co-opted as the date for Christmas in order to keep Christians from returning to the pagan cults from whence they came.
All that is to say that Christmas is a time when we celebrate the birth of Christ, no matter when it may have actually taken place. And so it is important to keep in mind that, though it may not really be Jesus’ birthday, this is the time we, as Christians, have set aside to reflect on the theological significance of Christ’s birth – of the coming of God into the world, being fashioned into helpless, wrinkly flesh, and living a human life, with human experiences, emotions, and suffering. This is the time when we remember that God showed up.
So what happened? Why has this Holy Day gone from a recognition of the most awesome, humbling thing our God has ever done in the history of the universe to a day when we get stuff?
Well, I’m not going to give an answer to that one. I could go off on a rant about the evils of commercialism and the corporate takeover of Christmas and yada yada yada. And it would be hypocritical of me because, I, too, like getting stuff on Christmas – just the other day I took some of my Christmas money and went out and bought something I really wanted. So, I certainly don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with getting things on Christmas. Christmas, after all, is a season of joy. But, there is a problem, I think, in the way we celebrate Christmas. We make it all about the joy. It is, indeed, a happy occasion – a time of love, and laughter, and friends and families coming together, of food and merry-making – and what do we wish each other after all? Merry Christmas! Happy Christmas! Or, my personal favorite – have a Holly Jolly Christmas! Christmas is all about joy! Advent is over, the King is here, unto us a child is born, Hallelujah! And that is perfect! Praise God, indeed. But, for what?
That’s where we get stuck. That is where Jesus becomes this magical remedy that all of the sudden makes everything better. Isn’t that why we are all happy? Isn’t that why we sing Joy to the World? The Lord is come and the Savior reigns! Do you ever really listen to the lyrics? And if you do, do you ever think about what that really means?
Because Simeon does. In our text today, Simeon, the random guy in the Temple who comes up and takes baby Jesus out of Mary’s arms – just think about that for a second, how awkward that must have been – Simeon knows full well what it means that God now walks on earth among us. Simeon is fully aware of what the Kingdom, which Jesus came to inaugurate, looks like. Christmas is a happy occasion for the lowly, for the poor, for the oppressed, for the captive, for the weak, for the sick, for the powerless. Because they will be exalted. But for those on the other end of society – for the high and mighty, for the rich, for the oppressors, for the captors, for the strong and the powerful – for most of us who are, globally, admittedly on the better off side of humanity, Christmas is not meant to be a conventionally happy time. If you think of happy as moving up in the world. If you think of joy as having a good life, feeling safe and secure in the warmth of your home surrounded by loved ones. Indeed, as Simeon points out, the coming of Jesus not only signifies the rising of many in Israel, but also the falling. Christmas is that one time when we are given a glimpse of the future Kingdom of God, when the complete social reversal is made, when the prince becomes the pauper and the pauper the prince, when God, Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, the All-Powerful, All-Consuming Force of Unconditional Love becomes the tiniest, most helpless little form of human imaginable, born to the lowest of the low, a poor family that can’t even afford the proper sacrifice to present him at the Temple, and God does it willingly. This is the Savior’s reign! As Mary says earlier in Luke, the powerful will be brought low, and the lowly will be lifted up! If you have stuff; if you have power; if you have privilege – this should scare you! If you don’t want to give it up.
I’ll tell you one person it did scare. It scared Herod. Oh, it scared him good. There was no room in his heart to share the power and control that he held, and so he decided that the best way to keep his power was to kill the new king. And so it happens that today, which is Holy Innocents’ Day in the calendar of the church, we remember the countless young lives lost in the wake of that futile endeavor, when Herod slaughtered every boy under two in Bethlehem and the surrounding villages.
Isn’t it awful what some people will do in order to resist the power-divesting force of Christmas? And Herod is not the first nor the last. History is riddled with individuals and groups of people who were so unwilling to give up their power, their wealth, and their privilege, that they imprisoned, tortured, and killed innocent people in order to keep it. Many of these people also celebrated Christmas as a joyous occasion, not recognizing that they were meant to be among the fallen in Israel, that Christmas meant that they should be willing to let go of what they had so that others could have it as well. At least Herod recognized that Christmas was a direct attack on his power and wealth. At least folks like Ebenezer Scrooge are honest in their assessment and rejection of Christmas – Christmas does indeed constitute a direct attack on their wealth and position in the world. Many of us, however, are content to experience Christmas without conviction, as a day of giving and receiving amongst close friends and family, a day of laughter and merriment, a day when we simply get salvation in the form of Jesus Christ.
But that’s not what Christmas is all about. My family and I were acutely reminded of that when we had an unexpected visitor at our house at 1am early Christmas morning. We had just returned from the Christmas Eve service here at the church, and my dad discovered a young woman hiding in our garage. She had grown up down the street from us, and our family knew her well. We brought her inside, and she began to tell us about her addiction to heroine, how she had overdosed again the previous Sunday. And as she told us her story, no doubt embellishing it here and there because she knew we had caught her attempting to steal from us, we stood there and listened. And I realized that it was Christmas, and this young woman was sick, addicted, out desperately looking for money to feed her addiction, and terrified that we might decide to turn her in. So, after she finished and my dad prepared to walk her to the door, sending her home to her father, I asked if it would be ok to pray together before she left. So we did. And in that moment, I don’t believe anyone could have faked the tears that fell down her cheeks.
Even your own soul will be pierced, Simeon said to Mary. And that night, I think all our souls were pierced. It’s necessary, before there can be joy, laughter, and merriment. Now I don’t know what more we could have done for that young woman – I wish we could have done something more, but I don’t know what. But I think the whole event was a much-needed reminder that Christmas was more for her benefit than it was for ours. Jesus came for everyone, it’s true, but he came especially to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captive, and freedom to the oppressed. So before we can have true fulfilment of that awesome, humbling event we call Christmas, it is necessary for those of us who have privilege in a society built on the foundations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance to relinquish control, to divest ourselves of our power, and to stop trying so hard to guard that which we consider to be ours. Some of us must be willing to take the fall, so that others may rise. We must be willing to let our souls be pierced. Because Christmas doesn’t come otherwise, not really. The joy of the season is not found in the acquisition of more, but in the willingness to be less. That’s Biblical. That is Christmas. Amen.