Lauren J. McFeaters
December 23, 2018
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Sometimes, all we can do is sing.
Simeon knows that. Anna knows that. But truth be told, in our world of clamor and noise and incessant talk, we forget. We forget we can sing.
It’s now 40 days after Jesus’ birth. After 8 days, Jesus had been circumcised and named in accordance with Jewish law. Now, 32 days later, as faithful Jews, his parents are again, carrying out their duty by returning to the Temple. This time to offer a sacrifice and to consecrate their child to the Lord.
They must have been in a reverent mood that day, the way many parents are, in our congregation, as they bring their child forward to be baptized. And so for this very reason, Mary and Joseph are perhaps startled, even frightened, when Simeon, old beyond years, and beaming ear to ear with ecstatic revelation, comes up to them to touch the child and begins to sing. [i]
And sing he does. His song fills the temple with strange mystery.
Master, now dismiss your servant in peace,
release me in peace as you promised.
With my own eyes I’ve seen your salvation;
it’s now, out in the open, for everyone to see
is glory for your people and my eyes have seen your salvation.
It’s Simeon’s Song and it’s known as Nunc Dimittis, Latin, meaning “Now you dismiss. Now you dismiss your servant in peace.” For centuries it’s been sung in the liturgies of at the close of day: Communion, Vespers, and Evensong.
But this is no Christmas Carol; no melody of angels and mangers, Kings and shepherds, but rather it’s a song of letting go, departing, saying goodbye. Yes, it’s a song of glory but it’s peeled back and unadorned. Simeon, the faithful, is ready to die. Juxtaposed with our Carols of glory and Wonder, it’s strange and inharmonious and dissonant.[ii] Sometimes, all we can do is sing.
Sometimes all we can do is watch.
Anna watched. She waited. She observed.
Like the prophet she is, her watch is insistent, steadfast, unrelenting. When Simeon begins to sing, every fiber of her soul, swings in the direction of his news, and when she lays eyes upon the child, her watching is complete.
My Grandmother McFeaters was a watcher. I knew this as a young child. I knew it when she baked. In her recipe for Christmas Molasses Cookies, she makes a note on the recipe card – you know, those 3×5 index cards with an illustration in the upper corner (a basket of apples or a crock of kitchen utensils), well Grandma McFeaters makes a note and her recipe reads like this:
Grandma McFeaters’ Christmas Molasses Cookies
Ingredients: flour, brown & white sugar, eggs, molasses, cinnamon, ginger. Mix.
Next: shape dough into balls, sprinkle with sugar, add a few drops of water,
Bake: 350 degrees
Then, she notes, in her charming handwriting, in capital letters and underlined twice, that you must WATCH; meaning you must be utterly dependable and diligent that the Molasses Cookies not burn. She lists no time for baking; no “bake for 8-10 minutes until edges are crispy; no cover with foil and at 6 minutes remove foil and brown; no test with toothpick at 7 minutes. No. Just WATCH.
You see, burning a cookie was not only a bad idea; not only wasteful; it was simply unnecessary, because in that moment Grandma McFeaters represented the generations of bakers who had delivered molasses cookies into the world.
- From her great-grandmother Jane McLaren,
- To her grandmother Alice Wood,
- To her mother Lida Kirkpatrick, she laid a legacy in the form of a recipe.
And when she slid that cookie sheet out of the oven, and lifted it to her nose, and closed her eyes, and inhaled that sweet molassesy aroma, it was more than a delicious treat for the end of Christmas dinner; it was an offering from one generation for the next.
Simeon and Anna; these faithful two; representing generations of the faithful and delivering God’s Promise into the world.
Of course, their friends thought they were loopy, hair-brained, and ridiculous. Who sings and watches for years on end?
How easy it would have been for Luke to stage this like a Broadway musical; the Temple filled with spotlights, shining costumes, glowing color, billowing tapestries, and radiant majesty made real by a smoke machine. The orchestra resounds, trumpets sound, timpani reverberates, and at stage left enters the Courier with scroll and declaration:
“Presenting ~ The Most Holy Family of the Universe.
The Savior of the World has entered the building.
All rise! Salvation has entered the Temple!”
No. Luke does the opposite. He chooses somber colors and shadowy corners. He leads us through quiet spaces and subdued corridors. No theater, just sanctuary, and what meets Mary and Joseph is not the Hallelujah Chorus or another round of “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!” but a Requiem; a Lament, a Dirge.
This child in your arms, Mary, is intended
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.
- No symphony of gladness. A foretelling of sorrow.
- No hymns of joy. A prophecy of grief.
- No canticle of bliss. A shadowing of anguish. [iii]
Just this once, shouldn’t Luke, and we, leave death outside our doors to deal with later, just like our holiday shopping bills, or the pounds we’ve put on? Can’t we ignore it at least while our families are here, and the kids are home from school. Can’t it wait until Lent?
But there it is, you see. Death doesn’t take a holiday. And it’s never more apparent than during Christmas.
Even here at Nassau, we clear our master calendar in December, because we expect more funerals; we expect more illness. It’s a time when our hopes join our fears, our expectations mingle with regrets, our reunions blend with disappointments.
Everything’s there to remind us of what has been and is no more: a cherished stanza, a favorite ornament, a savory taste, a beloved memory, an empty chair.
Simeon and Anna are no different. Just like you and me, they’ve tasted hope and despair, love and loss, joy and fear. And so Simeon sings of death, simply because he can’t help it; because he, like us, lives with it every day. Anna watches, simply because she can’t help it; because she, like us, live with it every day.
But here’s the thing. Here’s what we can’t forget. It’s that scene. Those few moments worth waiting for.
Do you see Simeon and Anna with the baby in their arms? He’s giddy. She’s chortling. He’s lifting that baby to his nose and snuffling into that neck. She’s gasping with tears and feeling that soft baby skin. [iv]
They are so ready.
- Every sweep of the broom and mopping of the floor,
- every stir of the soup and pressing of the dough,
- has been done in anticipation of the One who has finally landed in their arms.[v]
And they hold him. They hold the future. They smell him, listen to him, watch over him, sing to him.
There’s another thing. Simeon and Anna aren’t finished with us.
Through the centuries; they stand back, directing our ears and our gaze. There’s one more gift under the tree.
“Can you see it?” they ask. “Look a little closer.”
“Don’t miss it.” You’re getting so close.”
“There. There it is.”
It’s a new Christmas Carol, written just for us. And it goes like this:
The Baby Jesus is settled in your arms.
Close your eyes.
Inhale the sweet, sweet scent of salvation.
Kiss him with carols. Cradle him with prayer.
For he belongs to you. And you belong to him.
He is Christmas.
[i] David Lose. “Carols of Thanksgiving and Lament.” December 22, 2014, davidlose.net.
[ii] David Lose. “The Oddest Christmas Carol.” December 25, 2011, www.workingpreacher.org.
[iii] Lose, 2011.
[iv] John Stendahl. “Holding Promise: Luke 2:22-40.” The Christian Century, December 4, 2002, 17. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation, 2002.
[v] Thomas G. Long, Something Is About to Happen: Sermons for Advent and Christmas. Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 1996, 51.