What kind of buildings around the world serve to inspire you? What kind of buildings leave you breathless because of their sheer magnificence and beauty?
The Taj Mahal in Agra, India, left me stunned and awe-struck as I rounded a curve after an arduous trip by car from Delhi. Then there was Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, also in India. The Forbidden City in Beijing, Indonesia’s majestic Borobodur, the ancient Jordanian city of Petra and the splendid Durham Cathedral in northern England are all places that boggle my mind and stir my heart. Their sheer grandeur and brilliance is unforgettable.
And there is the Sydney Opera House. Every time I travel into the city over the old “coat hanger” and look east to view its magnificent white sails silhouetted against the blue waters of the harbour, I choke a little at the sheer spectacle.
Now we often do not realize it but the ancient Temple in Jerusalem was a magnificent place. It was one on the wonders of the ancient world. Completed by Herod in the 1st century, it attracted up to 400,000 pilgrims during the Festival of the Passover while tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of animal sacrifices were said to take place there each day.
Situated on Mount Moriah, The Temple complex was much larger in area than international standard cricket field. Built on a foundation of white marble, much of its walls were covered with gold while the eastern front of the main Temple was covered with golden plates that reflected the glow of the rising sun.
So can you imagine the scene as the humble Joseph and Mary, together with their child, made their way up to Jerusalem. Indeed, I remember sighting the Holy City myself for the first time. Off course the ancient temple mount in quite different now with the Islamic Dome of the Rock dominating the scene. But it’s still a site to behold. It’s a stunning place!
Now Joseph and Mary travel to Jerusalem for two reasons. These reasons are related to religious obligations as set down in the Torah or the Law. The first concerns Mary’s purification. According to Jewish custom and law, a mother who had recently given birth was considered to be ceremonially unclean until she went through a ceremony of purification. Mary underwent such purification and this enabled her to then re-enter mainstream life again.
Secondly, Joseph and Mary were in Jerusalem to offer or dedicate their first born son. This was in accordance with Jewish tradition and it went back to the time when Israel lived in slavery in Egypt many thousands of years before. During the dedication the child would be presented to a priest together with an offering.
Joseph and Mary’s gave a simple offering – two turtle doves. Meanwhile their son, Jesus, was dedicated as an acknowledgement that God has liberated God’s people from slavery. Here it is recognized that God acted to give Israel freedom and an identity as a nation of people who live under the authority and the purposes of God.
And here we witness Joseph and Mary as a faithful, loyal family who are committed to the requirements of their ancient tradition. Indeed, in the midst of the most glorious surroundings of the magnificent temple Joseph and Mary bring their child and their humble offering.
There is an element of irony here as the child Jesus – who is the very essence of God in human form – is brought to the very heart of Jewish religious life where God is thought to dwell in the central edifice of the temple – the Holy of Holies.
Indeed, amidst this human-made, exquisitely crafted splendor that is the Temple, Jesus the “Immanuel” – “God with us” – is presented by a humble, poor family in accordance with the traditions into which this child is born.
Now waiting in the temple precincts there was an old man by the name of Simeon. He was a long-term resident of Jerusalem who was waiting patiently for the time when God will come to free Israel. We are told by Luke that Simeon was a “righteous and devout” man who is earnestly looking forward to the “consolation” of Israel.
The Greek term “paraklesis” is used here in reference to “consolation” and this points to the idea of being “helped”, “encouraged” or “comforted”. It is the same word that John draws on in his Gospel to describe the “Holy Spirit” or the “paraclete”.
Here Simeon is eagerly looking to the time when his weary, occupied city will receive comfort and relief from God. And this was popularly thought to come about through the intervention of a Messiah.
Upon seeing the baby Jesus, the messianic hope is fulfilled. Simeon takes the child in his arms and bursts into song with the words:
“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 people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory to your people Israel.”
This is a song of incredible joy, power and celebration. Simeon’s life-long task is now complete. The hope and the future of Israel is bound up in this particular infant. The hope and the future of the entire world lies with this humble child born of Mary in the little town of Bethlehem!
But that is not all that happens. A widow of some 84 years comes by. We are told she is a prophetess, a person who is able to discern God’s actions in the world. And Anna recognizes the child Jesus – proclaiming him to be the one who will redeem Jerusalem. In other words, this old women, who fasted and prayed every day in the temple precincts, acknowledges Jesus as the one who will liberate her people!
Friends, there are two things I wish to highlight here in this most wonderful story. They both relate to “community” and the notion of “family”.
Firstly, there is Joseph and Mary. They are models of faith, dedication and commitment. Tradition these days can become a “dirty” word – often much maligned and scorned as being unhelpful and irrelevant. Yet, for the Jewish people the act of “remembering” is critical to their being and their identity. “Remembering” what God has done in the past and “enacting” what that past requires of God’s people to day is central, it is absolutely vital to Jewish life and practice.
And this is what the couple, Joseph and Mary, were doing as they brought the child Jesus to the Temple. Indeed, Jesus, himself, is located within this tradition and it is by means of this ancient Jewish practice that we begin to understand who Jesus is. We begin to comprehend the significance of what Jesus goes on to do.
Secondly, there is Simeon and Anna. They, too, are models of faith, dedication and commitment. For in these two amazing people we encounter the foresight, the wisdom and the understanding of the elders.
In Luke’s Gospel we learn that Mary is the first person to be told that Jesus is the Messiah. But we are aware Mary is “perplexed” by this encounter. Mary “ponders” all this in her heart. Now this contrasts quite sharply with Simeon and Anna. Their proclamation is crisp and clear. Jesus is the one – Jesus is the the Messiah who comes to redeem Israel and to be a light for the nations!
Friends, here is some real elderly wisdom and insight. The story of Simeon and Anna honours the old. While poor in material resources and short in years to be lived. Simeon and Anna form an integral part in the story. Elderly patience, elderly foresight, elderly vision and elderly wisdom play a vital role in recognizing Jesus as the Messiah. Indeed, these things are essential to being Christian community this day and in every day and age!
Simeon’s proclamation is often referred to by the Latin “Nunc Dimittis” and it has become part of the traditional “night prayer” used in Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox traditions over hundreds of years. The composers, William Byrd and Gustav Holst have set it to music and various forms of this song have been published today in some 230 hymnals worldwide.
Friends, on this first Sunday after Christmas we encounter a very special family. Amidst the splendor of the Jerusalem Temple we encounter a poor, humble couple with their first born child. In anyone’s terms, these are non-descript, unassuming, eminently forgettable people. They are simply, quietly going about what is required of them. There is no fan-fare or fuss. Joseph and Mary are fulfilling the requirements of their tradition. They are very ordinary people of faith, dedication and commitment.
Friends, on this first Sunday after Christmas we encounter a further dimension to this special family. Amidst the splendor of the Jerusalem Temple we encounter two unpresuming aged people. They lack pretention. They have no sense of self-importance and their ego’s have been long tucked away.
Rather, they are modest seniors hardened to the realities of life. And they are determined. For their eyes are wide open and their objectives are clear as crystal. Simeon and Anna are on look-out. They are waiting patiently and longingly for God to act.
Moreover, Simeon and Anna see this action taking place in the presentation of the Christ child. And all the beauty and all the splendor of the magnificent temple cannot overshadow this most amazing, long sought-after, long awaited fact.
On this first Sunday after Christmas, let us give thanks to God for this remarkable extended family – for the faithfulness, the dedication and the commitment of Joseph and Mary – for the patience, the insight and the wisdom of Simeon and Anna. And for the incredible, amazing gift of the infant Jesus whose presence outweighs, eclipses and surpasses all the splendor and all he magnificence that humankind can manufacture, construct or indeed create!
On this day we celebrate a special family. We acknowledge a unique community. We celebrate and acknowledge the kind of family and the type of community we are invited to be part of.
For this is a family and this is a community gifted with the wondrous person of Jesus – our future and our hope!
28th December 2014.