The church calendar has traditionally marked December 26th as St Stephen’s day, or the “feast of Stephen” as it is called in the carol, “Good King Wenceslas.” The feast day commemorates Stephen, the first Christian to die for the sake of his faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 8), which might seem an odd choice for such a festive season. Yet it was a very conscious choice to follow Christmas Day with a feast commemorating a martyr. Not, mind you, to throw a bucket of cold water over the joyous Christmas festivities, as the day was still very much a feast day. No, the force of the placement of St Stephen’s day was to state very clearly that for all of the wonder of the nativity story, it is but one chapter in a much longer story. Christmas day proclaims that “the Word became flesh and lived among us”—a central truth very much worth feasting—and St Stephen’s day reminds us that while, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him,” still “the world did not know him.” (John 1:10) And in the “not knowing” there was a cost.
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Something of the same can be said of the lectionary having us read this story from Gospel according to Luke on the first Sunday in Christmastide. It is one of only a very small handful of stories dealing with Jesus’ infancy and childhood, and it begins by telling how Mary and Joseph went up from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, to visit the temple to fulfill the torah requirement that Mary be declared ritually pure forty days after giving birth. Luke also refers to the ritual of presenting a firstborn son to the Lord, though in fact there was no legal requirement that this be done at the temple. Luke may conflating the two rituals—he even writes of “their purification according to the law of Moses”—but he may also be making a theological point here. Though only 40 days old, Jesus is making his first appearance in the temple where his parents ritually “redeem” him—that’s the language for a rite in which an offering is made to God on behalf of the firstborn. Luke’s point may be that Mary and Joseph have faithfully followed the covenant requirements of the torah, and have done so in the very temple that Jesus will later declare as about to be replaced by the temple that is his own life, death, and resurrection.
Luke’s sharpest focus, though, is on what happens when Mary and Joseph enter the temple and encounter two people; a woman named Anna, who is identified as a prophet, and a man named Simeon, who Luke identifies as “righteous and devout.” Both are elders of the community, though neither, it would seem, have any official priestly or scribal role. What is most striking about Simeon is that he is said to be a man who was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel” and upon whom the Holy Spirit rested. Luke writes that “it had been revealed to Simeon by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah,” and so “Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple.” He took one look at this young couple and their baby, swept the child into his arms, and began to offer praise:
Lord, now you are letting your servant die in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.
I can die a happy man; I’ve seen the child of promise; it is as good as accomplished. The language is pure poetry, filled with words that resonate so well in this season. Peace. Salvation. Light. Glory. And as you picture the scene that Luke paints, can’t you just see the light in the old man’s creased face?
But then Simeon moves from poetry to prose; from a song filled with light to words filled with warning.
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.”
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel”; this child will not walk an easy road; this child will bring crisis and division to a nation that knows not the depths of its own estrangement. Certainly some will follow, but others will oppose him and reject him. It has always been the way with the prophets of God. Simeon’s words almost foreshadow one of Jesus’ harder and more perplexing sayings: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt 10:34) Not that he carried a sword, and in fact on the one occasion in which one of his disciples wielded one Jesus responded by telling him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt 26:52) But his teachings and parables were a kind of sword, as was his choice of friends and the company he insisted on keeping. He talked about a “good Samaritan” in a world that saw Samaritans as despised and unclean outsiders; he “ate and drank with sinners”; he named the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and scribes, saying they were no more than beautiful grave markers placed atop of the decay of death; he publically debated with respected and recognized religious leaders… and won. Each of those acts cut against the grain of accepted practice and conventional definitions of righteousness. Some found their imaginations and hopes lit up by Jesus; others found him so offense as to be dangerous.
“This child is… 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.” Those final words spoken as a warning to Mary. The path that this child will walk is going to break your heart, Mary. He is going to break your heart.
And then as suddenly as old Simeon had appeared, he is gone from the scene. Now Luke’s focus is on eighty-four year old Anna, who he says, “never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” With the prophet Anna’s appearance, we’re moved from words of warning back to the language of praise. “At that moment Anna came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
With Anna’s arrival, we’re back to something closer to Simeon’s poetry of peace, salvation, light, and glory. We’re back to the feast and celebration that is Christmastide, but now with a renewed awareness that the story will move forward into more challenging territory. Rightly we can sing and dance at his birth. Rightly we can fill our homes with lights and feast right in the heart of the darkest days of winter. Rightly we can let ourselves be filled with a touch of a child’s wonder. Because we know that the story does move forward, and that we have been invited to be a part of it, as the adopted children of the Lord God.
In that carol for St Stephen’s Day, King Wenceslas is identified as “good” because he is the sort of king willing to interrupt his own comfort—his own feast—for the sake of the poor man, to whom he takes food and wine and wood for the fire. Perhaps that is what it means to rightly keep the Christmas feast; to be open to the interruptions of the world around us, and still to sing of peace, salvation, light, and glory.
May the coming days of Christmastide be for you days of light and life.