Reflections for the First Sunday of Christmas
Anna and Simeon. Their faces map all that they have seen of life. Luke tells us Anna is 84 years old. People have come and gone in her life. Life and death have danced together and then danced some more as the earth has spun and spun again on its axis. Yes, Anna and Simeon have seen and heard and felt in their bones the hopes and fears of many years. Then, when Mary and Joseph appear in the Jerusalem temple with Jesus, Anna and Simeon burst forth in a Spirit-seasoned duet of praise.
After everything they have encountered over many decades—after all that has gone awry in their lives and world—how do they know that this stable-born child is “destined for the rising and falling of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34)? What recognition stirs in Simeon to release from his spirit letting-go lyrics about his own mortality, his world-weary soul settling into a serene certainty about the future as he looks into the untested face of Jesus? What story still to be sung does Anna hear in the rhythms of Mary’s pondering heart? What truth does she imagine that baby holding in those tender, tiny hands?
Perhaps many of us ask questions like these during that space betwixt-and-between December 25 and January 1. What does it mean—the Advent waiting and Christmas caroling? How do we know that the promise sung by angels and foretold by a star some sages saw “at its rising” (Matthew 2) is true for our broken world? Because the days in the lectionary after Jesus’ birth and before Anna’s song of delight in the temple? They fracture nostalgic Christmas dreams.
The Gospel lectionary text for the First Sunday of Christmas—which falls this year on New Year’s Eve—unfolds as Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple to be blessed. The image is moving. Anna and Simeon have waited many years to see the sacred promise they glimpse in this child’s eyes. But we cannot delight in this hope-filled encounter in the temple—or see its prophetic truth—without journeying through the nightmarish lectionary readings for December 28.
In the Fifth Century, the Latin church instituted a day (observed on December 28 in the West) to remember and lament the Massacre of the Holy Innocents. The refrain of this remembrance? “A voice goes up in Ramah, Rachel weeping for her children” (Matthew 2:13-23). Herod, wanting to protect his political power and fearing that the people would embrace Jesus as their king, orders the genocide of all baby boys under two years old. Jesus “grew and became strong”(Luke 2:40); Rachel wept (Matthew 2).
Rachel still weeps today, her inconsolable cries piercing our Christmas cradlesongs. Too many mamas and daddies today groan in travail for wounded sons and daughters. Too many children risk tender feet and hearts on streets littered by violence-shattered reflections of who they can—could—yearn to—be, if only…
Matthew’s betwixt-and-between story reminds us. This is where Nativity happens—in an uncertain world where people face danger at the hands of death-dealing forces everyday—just as Mary and Joseph and Jesus did. Just as Rachel and her children did. This is where we see the live Nativity—in those half-remembered places just beyond the glow of the crèche where nightmares haunt innocent dreams.
So, the question again: what did it mean, the birth of the Christ child? What does it mean for our world today?
Perhaps Rachel’s counterpointing lament joins with Anna’s and Simeon’s duet and the three ancient voices together urge us to see the whole raw-edged arc of the Nativity. The snow globe is shattered, and Mary and Joseph and Jesus seek refuge in a real and dangerous world. Neither triumphal nor cozy, the Story is powerful and prophetic in its truth-telling. And this unabridged Nativity tale is relentless in calling us—the body of Christ—to break through life-limiting membranes to birth anew each day God’s grace and peace.
Photo by Sheila Hunter.
About Jill Crainshaw
Jill Crainshaw is a PCUSA minister and Blackburn Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. She is the author of several books on worship and ministry.