When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
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, 2:31 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.Luke 2:22-40
In today’s Gospel, we remember the story of Anna and Simeon. She, at the age of eighty-four, and he, also in his old age, were devout servants of God. Simeon looked forward to the coming Messiah. The Holy Spirit guided him to the Temple on the day Mary and Joseph were there, in fulfillment of God’s promise that he would live to see Jesus. No doubt, it was the Holy Spirit who told Simeon That this was the child he had been waiting for. There was nothing remarkable in the appearance of Mary and Joseph and their child. They looked like any other couple visiting the Temple to present their son to the Lord, so poor that they had to sacrifice turtle doves because they could not afford a lamb.
As Simeon held the 40-day-old baby in his arms, he praised God for the glory of Israel and the light for revelation to the Gentiles. Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph were amazed to hear Simeon’s words, just as he tells us that a little more than 10 months earlier Mary treasured up all she heard from the angels and the shepherds and pondered them in her heart. Given the generally accepted belief that Mary was Luke’s source for his gospel, it seems that she considered this encounter with Simeon to be the highlight of Jesus’ infancy.
Simeon blessed them, but what he said next was particularly startling for Mary: he predicted that a sword would pierce her soul, a reference to the anguish she would feel at His death. He told her that Jesus was to be a great divider – that some people would reject him; others would accept him. Simeon made it clear to Mary her very special role in God’s plan for mankind when he told her, “The child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against.” The rejection of her son was to lead to his crucifixion and the sword in her soul.
Mary was a young girl – probably around the age of fifteen – when the angel Gabriel visited her in her parents’ home in Nazareth and told her the bewildering news that she was chosen to give birth to the Messiah. Yet for someone so young, Mary shows a strength that we don’t see in the artistic representations of her. How much Mary actually understood is not important. What is important is that she had complete faith and trust in God. Mary had free will, as we all do, and she could have said “no.” But she didn’t hesitate for a moment. Her “yes” changed everything for everyone in every generation to come. As she broke into what we now refer to as the Magnificat, we see evidence of that faith and trust. In her canticle, Mary rejoices that she has the privilege of serving God by bringing the Messiah into the world. She acknowledges her lowliness and marvels at how she anticipates the coming of Jesus, and she glorifies and exalts God.
In the late 80’s, Mark Lowry sat down to write a script for a Christmas program. When he finished, he had the lyrics for a song that has become a modern classic, one that we have heard countless times over the next few weeks:
Mary, did you know that your baby boy would someday walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you…
As we listen to these words, our thoughts return to the Temple on that day and we wonder: did Mary know? Did she know the pain she would feel as she stood at the foot of the cross? Had she already considered Simeon’s prophetic words?
We have no reason to doubt that in His mercy God had prepared Mary ahead of time for the fulfillment of His plan for mankind. Therefore, we have no reason to doubt that as she participated in His plan, she would also participate in the suffering. Jesus was fully human and fully divine. The blood that He shed on the cross – the blood that washed away our sins – was human blood, part of the human nature He got from Mary.
There was a price to be paid for the honour of being the mother of the Saviour, and Mary paid it willingly, including the suffering she would undergo for his sake. During his public ministry she had to step aside, to make room Jesus’ new family, the family of his disciples. She also had to hear the words: “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?… Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is brother, and sister and mother.” She heard the cruel words of His enemies and the evil way they spoke against His ministry, and she was at the foot of the cross when He was crucified. Perhaps at the cross, Mary thought back to Simeon’s prophecy and found comfort in how all this was part of God’s divine plan. She remembered the first words Gabriel spoke to her three decades earlier: “Do not be afraid, Mary,” and although the disciples fled in fear, she did not. How she must have suffered, despite the fact that she knew how the story would end, and how she must have rejoiced at the news of the resurrection!
The blessedness of being chosen to be the mother of the Son of God also became a sword which pierced her heart as her Son died upon the cross. She received joy and sorrow at the same time. But her sorrow did not diminish her joy because of her strong faith, hope, and trust in God and his promises.
If you knew what God had ahead for you included pain, what would you do? Would you agree, as Mary did, or would you use your free will to say “no?” God has given us a weapon that we can use to protect ourselves, different than the kind of sword Simeon described to Mary. He wants us to take the sword which pierces the soul and replace it with the Sword of the Spirit described by Paul in Ephesians 6. The sword is the Word of God, part of the full armour of God. Hebrews 4:12 tells is that the Word of God is sharper than a double-edged sword and that it can divide soul and spirit.
God’s blessings are often a paradox. Like Mary, we have the blessings of God in our lives.
Jesus promised his disciples that no one will take your joy from you. The joy that God gives us enables us to bear any sorrow or pain. The sword of the spirit – His word – not only allows us to attack (and counter-attack) the enemy, but it allows us to protect ourselves from harmful blows.
As we prepare to leave the challenges of 2020 and face the uncertainty of the world in 2021, is your sword sharpened? If it is, you will be like Mary, ready to say, “Be it unto me according to Thy word.”