FEAST OF THE HOLY FAMILY(B) Dec. 27, 2020
By Jude Siciliano, O.P.
The local theaters and concert halls are mostly empty these days. Still, productions of Christmas music, "The Nutcracker," and Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol," are being live-streamed. Is it just memories from the past, or do these improvised presentation still look big and impressive? Today’s gospel, in contrast, is small-size drama with no spotlights shining on the lead actors. Who would put a spotlight on a poor couple with their infant and two old, temple characters like Simeon and Anna anyhow? We bible readers know the answer to that question – God would!
If tradition is correct, Simeon is an old man. Anna is described as "advanced in years." Both are devout and they have had a long-weathered faith. Our first world culture barely notices the aged. Often, when the elderly are addressed we adopt a tone of voice that sounds like we are talking to children – only louder. This shocks people from other lands like Africa, Asia and many poorer nations, who still hold their elderly in high regard. Their parents and grandparents are treated with respect and are sought for their wisdom. Here in our culture, if we have a question we go to Google for our answer. We might get an answer; but do we get wisdom honed by experience?
Still, elderly people in the bible can be at risk if they are widowed, or without children to care for them. The scriptures often present such vulnerable ones as models of faith for the rest of us. Simeon and Anna have waited a long time to see "the Christ of the Lord." What kept them faithful for so many years? They were sustained by the Holy Spirit – the strong One who takes the side of the lowly and upholds them in prayer as they wait for "the consolation of Israel." The story shows that God does not disappoint those who trust in God. As we heard the angel Gabriel tell Mary last Sunday, "Nothing is impossible for God." So, I want to ask myself: What revelation from God am I waiting for? Where and how am I waiting? What will be the signs to me that will tell me God has visited me in my waiting?
I have seen the faithful and elderly Anna and Simeon many times, haven’t you? (As I am advancing in years I hope I can be described like them, "faithful and elderly!") Before the pandemic lockdown, I was on a long line at a drugstore. A senior woman was at the cashier slowly counting out her money from a change purse. Those of us in line behind her waited and watched. I was delighted that no one made an impatient gesture, or muttered, "What’s taking so long?" I imagine the woman’s life must be a frequent test on her patience, as well as on the patience of those around her at home and in other stores. As she passed I noticed a bible sticking out of her cloth shopping bag. "Oh good," I thought, "she’s not alone, she’s got help to give her courage and endurance over the long days." The Spirit will be with her when life asks patience and trust of her. The same is true for us.
Again, before the pandemic, I was chatting with an 80 year old man who manages a parish St. Vincent de Paul food pantry for the poor. He told me that during the 35 years he taught school he used to "help out a bit at the pantry." But he is retired now and he said, with a twinkle, "For the past 10 years, I have been the boss here!" He greets the poor cordially; listens to their problems; helps them pay for rent, electric bills, or emergency shelter and he gives them food from the pantry. He has been at it for a long time, waiting for poor people in need to come. He is the "boss" alright – but not without a lot of sustenance from the Holy Spirit who helps him, like Anna and Simeon, recognize Jesus in the poor he serves.
Simeon and Anna may not stand in the spotlight on the world’s stage, but they are very important people in Luke’s gospel, even though they are only "on stage" for this one scene. They are not among the official religious leadership, some of whom were antagonistic to Jesus and later rejected and had him executed. They didn’t know, or recognize the messiah when he came. How does one get to "know" Jesus?
For Simeon and Anna, faith in God’s promises kept them faithful and vigilant, so that when God entered their lives, they were wide awake and receptive to something new and unexpected. God is present in surprising ways for those with open minds and hearts who are vigilant and live in hope. Those who have put their hope in God will persevere and recognize the messiah when at last he does come into their lives, even if disguised among the least and vulnerable.
Simeon has a significant message for the child’s parents – and us. Jesus appears and Simeon speaks the last words we will hear in the Temple about Jesus. Luke has set a dramatic stage for what Simeon has to say, "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that is contradicted." There is it again: Luke’s gospel in a nutshell, announced this time by one of the "little ones" with vision. Jesus will contradict the world’s way of reckoning, just as Mary proclaimed in her "Magnificat" – "God has deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places" (1:52). When all is said and done, God contradicts the worldly powers and confounds them by the wisdom of the meek and gentle: like Anna, Simeon, Mary and Joseph – and Jesus. But there is pain along the journey of faith and Simeon says that even Mary will not be spared.
Let’s not diminish Anna’s role. She is conscious of Jesus’ identity and "gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem." Anna is the only woman in this gospel to be called a prophet. But why doesn’t Luke tell us what Anna said in her "thanks to God?" Luke does tend to give silent roles to the women of his gospel; they are more listeners and he never calls them "disciples," or "apostles." Women "serve" in Luke’s gospel and are healed of infirmities; but they aren’t commissioned, as Jesus’ male disciples were, to tell others the good news. Though they have a subservient role in this gospel, women are with Jesus during key moments: during his years of ministry; his execution and at both his burial and the empty tomb. And in Acts, Luke’s second volume, certainly women were there when Christ appeared to "the Eleven and the rest of the company assembled " (24: 33).
Luke seems to be locked in his times, a period when women in his Roman world were, with a few exceptions, repressed. His depiction of women does show some emancipation and early Christians were more liberal in their attitudes towards women than the world around them. Perhaps Luke has men in more significant roles so as to put Christianity in a better light in his surrounding pagan world.
This is the feast of the Holy Family – aren’t we supposed to focus on them and family life? Yes, but this family isn’t a separate unit unto itself, protected in a cocoon from the joys and sorrows of the world. While Joseph and Mary will take the child back to their town of Nazareth to provide him with the kind of familiar setting which will enable him to grow and "become strong, filled with wisdom" – still, they cannot prevent what will befall him later. He will, as Simeon foretold, be a "sign that will be contradicted."
The gospel may be telling us about Jesus’ earliest years, but we are not dealing with the infant, or child Jesus in our faith – are we? We are already begin invited to join Simeon in proclaiming Jesus as God’s salvation and also Anna, in her speaking about the child, "to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem" (or, London, New York, Baghdad, Shanghai, etc).
I hear a whole new reign bursting in on us. God has come and is doing the usual "divine thing" – revealing to a faithful remnant a long-awaited message. I also hear Luke’s subtle invitation to accept this messiah, especially in ways that will undo our world and build a new kingdom based on God’s ways and God’s surprising gifts.
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