First Sunday after Christmas — Rev. Karen Barfield

Luke 2:22-40

In the name of the one, holy and living God:
creator, redeemer and sanctifying spirit. Amen.

One day Saint Francis and Brother Leo were walking down the road. Noticing that Leo was depressed, Francis turned and asked: ‘Leo, do you know what it means to be pure of heart?’

‘Of course. It means to have no sins, faults or weaknesses to reproach myself for.’

‘Ah,’ said Francis, ‘now I understand why you’re sad. We will always have something to reproach ourselves for.’

‘Right,’ said Leo. ‘That’s why I despair of ever arriving at purity of heart.’

‘Leo, listen carefully to me. Don’t be so preoccupied with the purity of your heart. Turn and look at Jesus. Admire him. Rejoice that he is what he is – your Brother, your Friend, your Lord and Savior. That, little brother, is what it means to be pure of heart. And once you’ve turned to Jesus, don’t turn back and look at yourself. Don’t wonder where you stand with him.

‘The sadness of not being perfect, the discovery that you really are sinful, is a feeling much too human, even borders on idolatry. Focus your vision outside yourself on the beauty, graciousness and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise him from sunrise to sundown. Even when they feel broken, feeble, distracted, insecure and uncertain, they are able to release it into his peace. A heart like that is stripped and filled – stripped of self and filled with the fullness of God. It is enough that Jesus is Lord.’

After a long pause, Leo said, ‘Still, Francis, the Lord demands our effort and fidelity.’

‘No doubt about that,’ replied Francis. ‘But holiness is not a personal achievement. It’s an emptiness you discover in yourself. Instead of resenting it, you accept it and it becomes the free space where the Lord can create anew. To cry out, ‘You alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord,’ that is what it means to be pure of heart. And it doesn’t come by your Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions.’

‘Then how?’ asked Leo.

‘Simply hoard nothing of yourself; sweep the house clean. Sweep out even the attic, even the nagging painful consciousness of your past. Accept being shipwrecked. Renounce everything that is heavy, even the weight of your sins. See only the compassion, the infinite patience, and the tender love of Christ. Jesus is Lord. That suffices. Your guilt and reproach disappear into the nothingness of non-attention. You are no longer aware of yourself, like the sparrow aloft and free in the azure sky. Even the desire for holiness is transformed into a pure and simple desire for Jesus.’” (Brennan Manning, “Shipwreck at the Stable” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, pp 196–198.)

A pure and simple desire for Jesus… the Messiah… such was the desire of Simeon.

The Spirit had told him that he would not rest until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.
Such was the focus of his life.

So, when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the temple, Simeon knew within his heart who this child was.

He gathered him up into his arms and praised God, full of joy and light:
“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,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for the glory of your people Israel.”

Simeon’s eyes and arms and whole body,
enfolding the consolation of Israel,
was released into God’s peace,
knowing that God’s healing for the world had come.

In the midst of the life and peace being inaugurated, Simeon also took note:
“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….” (Lk 2:34b-35)

James Howell, a Methodist pastor, points out that Jesus’ ordering of events is not the same as ours (in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 1, p. 168).

Note the ordering of Simeon’s prophecy: “the falling and rising”
“a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts will be revealed

In our world we hear of “the rising and falling”…there is the rising and falling of a business tycoon or a movie star or the stock market or some method of technology.

But with Jesus it’s fall and rise.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain;
but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24)

Anna fasts “night and day,” not “day and night.”

Jesus did not ascend directly to heaven following his crucifixion; he first descended to the dead before he rose again.

“We suffer and die – and not just at the end of life. [Paul says,] ‘I have been crucified with Christ’ (Gal 2:19); I bear the death of Christ now. I deny myself. I am persecuted because I am in sync with Christ and out of sync with the world. We fall, and from that lowest point, we rise. We may just fall, but if we rise, we fall and then rise.” (Ibid.)

We die to self and rise to new life in Christ;
we are stripped of self and filled with the fullness of God.

In the addiction world it is often said that you must hit rock bottom before you can ask for help.

In some ways that is true for all of us.

We must realize that we are not the force behind our own lives: our lives are gift.

We must look beyond ourselves to the God who created us,
to the God who redeems us,
to the God who sustains us.

Simeon spent his nights and his days waiting for – longing for – the coming of the Messiah.

The late Rabbi Abraham Herschel said, “Jesus Christ is of no importance unless he is of supreme importance.”

May we, along with Simeon and Anna, embrace the Holy One in our arms, in our lives,
and so be swept up into God’s peace and life-giving power.

Amen.