Getting to the manger of Bethlehem hardly finishes the story, thus Luke 2:22-40 provides the conclusion to Luke’s infancy narrative. He has shown the parents of Jesus to be faithful to the laws of Rome; now he shows their faithfulness to the laws of Israel. The First Sunday after Christmas focuses on two liturgical themes: The Holy Family and the Presentation in the Temple.
It was customary to present the firstborn male to the Lord; making an offering for the purification of the mother was also a routine ritual. While at the temple, the Holy Family encounters two figures, Simeon and Anna, who literally could have stepped off the pages of the Hebrew Bible.
When we read Luke’s description of Simeon as one who was righteous and devout, upon whom the Spirit rested, we realize that here is a man who has lived as God intended. He has continued to look for the “consolation” or redeemer of Israel—even when others had given up believing the Messiah would ever come. Anna was the counterpart to Simeon—someone at home in the temple, constant in prayer, led by the Spirit, also expecting God’s Messiah to come.
It was a remarkable scene: the wizened Simeon, hands shaking with age and delight, took the pink, squirming newborn in his arms and praised God. He recognized that God had been faithful to the prophetic word spoken centuries ago. Simeon also realized God’s kindness in honoring his deepest longing: to see “your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples” (v. 31). Simeon then presented his life back to God: “Now you are dismissing your servant in peace.”
Much like Simeon, Anna perceived who the child was and responded in praise to God. Her spiritual sensitivity was acute, and she was called a prophet. Long years of prayer and attentive waiting allowed Anna to recognize the one for whom she had longed.
The scene closes and we are left wondering what happened to these saints. We do know, however, that their lives had reached their deepest fulfillment in being used of God to identify and welcome Jesus. Indeed, they were welcoming God. Madeleine L ’Engle sums up their vision:
How remarkable, how beyond the bounds of ordinary possibility, that two old people should see a small baby and recognize that he was the Light of the World!
Was it perhaps because they were so old, so near to the Beyond, that they were able to see what people caught up in the cares of life could not see?
Spiritual discernment comes through learning to pay attention to the presence of God. Without discernment, we will miss the abundant gifts of God all around. The sensitivity that characterizes Anna and Simeon came through regular practices of prayer, worship, and study of the Scriptures. God honors their fidelity, just as we should honor those in our midst who display such spiritual maturity.
As we begin this new year of our Lord, let us strive to grow in discernment, especially of the graceful ways Christ is present to us. He has come so very near as to be one of us, and we are enfolded in God’s consolation. Thanks be to God!
Molly T. Marshall
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