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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Christmas 12/31/2017

Today, if you didn’t already know, you find out where a piece of the liturgy comes from. “Now Lord, you let your servant go in peace” is one of our Post Communion canticles, traditionally known as the Nunc Dimittis, those being the first two words of this song of Simeon in Latin. The context though is Jesus’ presentation and consecration at the temple, a Jewish rite in which forty days after birth, parents brought a first born son to the temple to be offered to God and redeemed or bought back with an offering, for Mary and Joseph the offering being a pair of doves. If you counted, you’d find that forty days after Christmas is February second and the Presentation of our Lord is a minor festival of the church observed on that day although the only time it might get a mention is when it falls on a Sunday. Other than that, the groundhog has pretty much co-opted the date. This year though, the lectionary gives us this story a mere six days after Christmas.

To us, this ritual of presentation probably just seems odd as does much of the ritual of the Old Testament. Anyone who tries to read the Bible straight through is likely to get bogged down in all the law and ritual described in parts of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. A lot of it does seem odd and it does make for tedious reading but it is evidence of the importance of ritual in the culture into which Jesus was born. Part of the practice of Judaism was the effort to be conscious of God’s presence in all aspects and times of life, in one’s rising up and lying down, in going out and coming in, in how one dressed and what one ate. Understood that way, seen as a means of bringing God to mind even in some of the more mundane things we do, observance of ritual is worth thinking about; there is something to say for it.

The danger of obedience to ritual comes when it’s just going through the motions, where the external act isn’t attached to sincerity of faith in God and then living out that faith in care for the neighbor. It’s that kind of hypocrisy that Jesus called attention to in his criticism of the Pharisees, and then later, Paul had the same kind of criticism of those who thought that the outward completion of such works was the ticket to salvation.

Such criticism of ritual is valid of course, but still early Christianity as an offshoot of Judaism developed with many ritual observances. One of the results of the Reformation though, at least in some quarters, was the de-emphasis of ritual and greater emphasis on more intellectual aspects of the faith like reading the Bible and hearing it explained in preaching. In part that was due to Martin Luther’s influence, opposed as he was to rituals like pilgrimages, fasts and veneration of relics being understood as a means of earning God’s favor. Other reformers went much further than Luther though with opposition even to the ritual of the liturgy the ultimate result of that being the churches where there is no liturgy at all. Reading the Bible is important; the proclaimed word in preaching is important and thinking the faith is important, but in my opinion, something is lost when the ritual of worship is minimized so that faith is mostly an intellectual exercise and worship becomes more of a performance and/or motivational address.

This story of the presentation of Jesus then can serve as a reminder of the power of ritual to evoke the presence of the holy, something that easily gets lost in a secular world that leaves little room for wonder and mystery. In a book I’m reading on the re-emergence of the Orthodox Church in post-Soviet Russia the author says, “History has again and again demonstrated that religious symbols, narratives and rituals retain a potential to help people see beyond the status quo and to dream new dreams.” I think that’s very well said. Rituals help us to celebrate the goodness and mystery of life and to imagine new possibilities.

A good New Year’s resolution for any of us would be to have greater appreciation not only for the ritual of worship but also to find rituals to better help us celebrate the presence of God in the ordinary, thus helping us to see beyond the status quo. We do it to a degree in worship, but if we could find ways to be intentional about greeting the morning with gratitude, to truly be thankful for food, family and friendship at meals, even to celebrate the beauty of a cold winter day, it might bring us to greater awareness of God’s presence in a world where it can seem like God is absent.

Another thing this story of Jesus’ presentation does is to introduce two new characters, Simeon and Anna, to Luke’s birth narrative. When Jesus is brought by his parents to the temple for the ritual of presentation, he is met there by the old man Simeon and the old woman Anna. Sometimes this encounter is interpreted as a meeting of the new and the old, telling us that the old is over and in Christ, the new has come which would certainly be an appropriate image for New Year’s Eve as the old year ends and a new one begins. With Jesus’ presentation then, two covenants meet. The promise made to Abraham that he would be a blessing to the nations is fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Jesus is understood as a light for revelation to the Gentiles. In him, light has come. With him there is new life and new hope, new possibilities.

The caution with this understanding of new meeting old is to too quickly draw the conclusion that new is good and old is bad because Luke’s telling of the story invites another interpretation. What’s interesting in his birth narrative is that there are five characters who play what we could call a prophetic role. They are, first of all Elizabeth, who will be the mother of John the Baptist but who also recognizes Jesus in Mary’s womb and pronounces a blessing on her. Then there is Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth, who doubts the word of the angel and is cursed by being made mute but ultimately predicts that God will, through Jesus, rescue Israel from its enemies and he predicts that John will pave the way for Jesus

Then there is Mary, who is receptive to God’s command and in what we call her Magnificat, among other things, she predicts that Jesus will overthrow the powerful and bless the poor. Finally there are the two characters we encounter today, Simeon who prophesies that Jesus will be good news for Israel and for the Gentiles, but also that Jesus will divide Israel and that Mary will experience sorrow, a sword will pierce her heart. Along with Simeon there is Anna who praises God and speaks of Jesus to all who hope for redemption of Israel.

Five prophetic characters and four of them are old; only Mary is young. You know that we live in a world that celebrates youth and values new and shiny. Many products are designed to become obsolete after a period of time so that you have to get a new one, and even if you don’t really need it, advertisers convince you that you do; you have to have it because new is better than old.

This story along with the rest of the birth narrative might be seen as a caution about being too quick about dispensing with the old. Mary in her youth does provide a model of faith as she accepts the word of the angel and says, “Let it be with me according to your word,” but throughout the story it is old people who provide insight into the meaning of this child, the meaning of this birth. It’s not that the young are incapable of such insights, and it’s not always the case that being old makes one wise but especially in matters of faith it can be the elders and the fathers and the mothers who can best guide us to truth.

There is value in the wisdom of the ancestors of our faith just as there is value in religious ritual that has been around for the better part of two thousand years. Both have been means of making God’s presence known and means of bringing people to faith for all those years.

New does meet old as Jesus is presented in the temple but the new doesn’t replace the old. Jesus, the new, is understood to fulfill the old promises and prophecies, but those old promises and prophecies continue to inform that which is new. As we begin a new calendar year, may we be open to the mystery and wonder of what is new and what is old.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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not me
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