|If you were to give 2020 a name, what would it be?|
For the first time in years, I finally had New Year’s Eve off work in 2019. I excitedly joined my friends in the city centre of Inverness for a night of live music, hot chocolate and food. Crowding around the laptop, we all watched the Time’s Square ball drop, loudly chanting 5, 4,3, 2, 1,HAPPY NEW YEAR! Clinking our glasses and banging pots and pans. I am sure many of you engaged in similar festivities.
New Year’s Eve has always ranked as one of the top three nights of my year along with Christmas and my birthday. There’s just something so exhilarating about the start of something new. A blank 365 pages, knowing despite all the troubles and turmoils of the previous year, we are given a fresh start. It is always a day of reflection and anticipation, yet 2020 held my intrigue even more. Back in 2000 (when I was still in elementary school), my cousin and I excitedly crafted a time capsule with the solemn instructions “don’t open until 2020 or else!” We had no way of knowing then the box would still remain unopened due to laws preventing us from meeting up.
A few other plans I had for 2020 included: hiking the French Alps, touring several Scottish Islands, and getting married. Here are a few words I didn’t expect to associate with this year: disappointment, disillusionment, break-up,death, quarantine,virus, and lockdown. Yet, now approaching the 9th month of the pandemic, knowing that 75% of the year has already been spent under various restrictions, we have all had to come to terms with the fact that COVID is here to stay.
The first weeks of Jesus’s life were shockingly similar. True, there was no global illness floating around and the World Health Organization wasn’t telling people to stay home, but all was not calm and bright that first Christmas. Today’s Christmas cards are filled with beautiful scenery and picturesque landscapes. The bright Christmas lights attract our attention, and the engagement of our five senses makes Christmas a whole body experience. Yet, in Bible times, there were hurdles and political tumult. Jesus was born into an environment of genocide and political instability. King Herod demanded all baby boys under age 2 to be murdered, and the Jewish temple had been destroyed. The first temple (built by King Solomon in the Old Testament) had been razed to the ground and the exiles scattered abroad. It wasn’t a time of Christmas carols, it was a time when life stopped being safe.
Many of us have experienced similar sentiments this year. Many of the freedoms we once enjoyed, the opportunities we once had to travel freely, to socialize, and even to go to church have been depleted by the virus. Public health and safety being paramount, yet, at the same time, realizing that home is not a safe place for so many. Domestic abuse, marital tension, and division running rampant in our society and world. It seems that many of the old cornerstones of our lives like church and school have become the unsafest places of all (according to the global health authorities), and for many of us, this might have been our first Christmas not being able to meet inside a church building. Something many of us probably thought we would never experience in our lifetimes.
To the world, this might look like the destruction of the church. And it is, if we consider church only a building and nothing more. Yet, the truth is that the church has never been stronger and its mission more vital. It may not look the same or even function the same, but the all-encompassing role of the church as providing for the poor, comforting the brokenhearted, and proclaiming liberation has magnified. In the midst not only of a global pandemic, but racial injustice, indigenous oppression and political uncertainty, the church is reaching out and being a bright light to all those walking in the shadow of 2020.
In today’s Bible passage, we are introduced to four main characters who display the ways we can greet 2021. Firstly, we have Jesus. In Jewish law, baby boys were circumcised at 8 days old. Being devout Jews, Jesus’s parents brought him to the temple to carry this out. As a baby, Jesus’s only role was showing up and passively receiving God’s blessings. Similar to our baptism today when we experience the love of God and the church, knowing that we are called and claimed, not through any merit of our own, but only through the divine inclusion of Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
Secondly, we meet Jesus’s parents, Mary and Joseph. Despite the Christmas Narrative where Mary and Joseph are main characters, they actually play a rather small role in this scene. Yet, although small their role is profound. In this passage, Jesus’s parents actively offer their son to God in confidence. The Greek word used for the presentation is “obligation.” Today, it is not so popular to tell Christians they are obligated to do anything. After all, none of us are obligated to read the Bible, pray, or even go to church, yet many of us choose to do these things out of our love and devotion for Christ. Yet, just like Mary and Joseph, we are obligated to offer ourselves in service to God. Sharing God’s message of love, hope, and joy through our acts of social justice are not activities we can simply take or leave, but are meaningful encounters all God’s people are invited to partake and delight in for the benefit of our world and God’s reign.
Thirdly, we meet the Prophet Simeon. The Bible describes Simeon as an elderly gentleman who patiently waited to see the Baby Jesus. Scripture says he longed for Israel to be comforted after all the tragedies the country had faced, and he was given the incredible promise that he would not die until he had seen Christ. It is often said that while none of us choose when we will die, some are able to hang on until a loved one arrives, or even to wait another day or week for an important event like a birthday or anniversary to pass. It was the same with Simeon. He was determined and stubborn, not willing to depart until God’s promise had been granted. Taking the infant Jesus into his arms he proclaimed, “this is it! Your servant can now depart in peace.” Some of us might have uttered similar sentiments. After a lovely day out or a wonderful accomplishment we might say ‘now I can die a happy man” or “a happy woman.” But in Simeon’s case, this was not a flippant phrase, but an honest confession. Simeon was well into the sunset years of his life, a miracle had just happened, and Simeon knew what was coming next and was totally at peace with it.
Simeon also said something very strange to Mary. Instead of congratulating her on the birth of the one who would bring peace and salvation to Israel, he emphatically stated, “this child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken again, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed, and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
What a strange thing to say to a new mother!! Many of us here have held newborn babies. When we meet a newborn we might say something like “he has his mother’s eyes’ or “she has her dad’s nose” or even “look how much hair he has” or “look how big she is!” Those of you who have children may be able to share some stories of when your kids have wounded you or pierced your own soul with worry, regret, or concern, but we can all imagine how it would feel if we showed a friend our brand new baby and the first thing they said was “your son or daughter is going to bring heartache and pain into your life.” Yet, Simeon’s comment was not a criticism of Mary’s parenting or even a warning of teenage rebellion, but rather a foreshadowing of Christ’s death and the purpose of His life to be the Saviour of Humankind.
Lastly, we meet the prophetess Anna. The Bible says she had only been married for 7 years, before being windowed for 77 years. She would have been a widow in her early twenties, lacking the financial stability and economic security her husband would have provided. Back then, women had the opportunity of marrying one of her husband’s other relatives, but the text seems to indicate this was either not an option for her or that she did not want this. Instead, she chose to faithfully give herself to God in the midst of hardship, dedicating her life to service in the temple. When Anna was given lemons, she made lemonade, and her heart was full of gratitude towards the child as she fixed her eyes on the redemption and restoration of Israel.
Like Simeon and Anna, we are all waiting for something. The reconciliation of nations and cultures, the renewal of human kindness, the restoration of justice, the rebuilding of our world in the wake of natural disasters and human catastrophes, and the reframing of society’s views and expectations towards gender violence, mental illness, addiction, and incarceration. Waiting doesn’t have to be passive. We can practice an active waiting, filled with anticipation, longing, trust, and faith in a brighter future. A waiting that rests in God’s love and kindness, believing that a better day is coming, and while we wait, showing up in places where we willingly stand in the gap.
For many of us, 2020 might have truly been one of the most difficult years of our lives, but it was also a year of clarity, vision and radical transparency which opened the windows of our souls. By placing our faith and trust in God, we can believe that 2021 will bring refreshing, liberty and freedom. The present might look bleak right now, but by staying in touch with the Holy Spirit, we know that God will bring the restoration and rebuilding about while we actively participate in God’s divine plan. Amen.