First Sunday after Christmas
Over against the spectacle that Christmas in America has long since become – the kitschy sentimentality of front lawns unselfconsciously strewn with inflatable reindeer and snowmen alongside crèches populated by conspicuously Caucasian renditions of the Holy Family; the collective credit card induced hangover that invariably follows our annual orgy of consumerism; and our habitual rush always to look ahead to whatever’s next (there’s New Year’s Eve revelry to be planned, after all) – this week’s texts invite us to linger for a moment, and maybe take seriously the character and magnitude of what God has done and (believe it or not) continues to do through the Word made flesh.
Practically treating Mary’s revolutionary song (Luke 1:46-55) of impending political upheaval from last week’s gospel text as a fait accompli, these passages are celebratory, if not downright triumphalist: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,” cries the prophet Isaiah, for “the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” “Praise the LORD,” says the Psalmist, speaking not just to the gathered congregation of Israel, but to all of creation, for “He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him.” And Simeon, finally, declares to God as he embraces the infant Jesus, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
It is precisely the celebratory tone of these texts that makes it difficult for us to read and preach them without irony or equivocation. One needn’t look far or long to see that the world is a long way from being the kind of place Mary, Isaiah, or Simeon anticipated. The proud are far from being scattered, the powerful remain comfortably settled on their thrones, and it doesn’t look like the rich are going to be sent away empty anytime soon.
The salvation Simeon claimed to see is nowhere to be found; instead, the biosphere moves steadily closer to ecological collapse, the income and wealth gap between rich and poor keeps growing, we continue to reap the tragic effects of a history of racism, war has become a seemingly permanent fixture in our lives, and we suddenly find ourselves engaged in acrimonious debate over whether the CIA’s “rectal hydration” of some of our enemies was somehow morally praiseworthy. Seriously, in a world like the one we inhabit, what are we supposed to do with these texts, all this unqualified praise, all these confident declarations of the triumph of good over evil and justice over subjugation?
It was precisely these questions that led me to reexamine a few pages from David Toole’s underappreciated book, Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo. Toole suggests that it is only by cultivating an “apocalyptic style” that acknowledges the “strangeness of this biblical world and, by extension, the world generally” that we may sustain the hope that, in spite of every appearance to the contrary, God is even now at work, almost always in the unlikeliest of ways, bringing about the restoration of the original shalom of all creation.
In this world, history continues not because of what kings and presidents might do but because ravens keep alive a prophet starving in the desert (1 Kings 17) and because even as kings and presidents count their people and take their polls and plan the future, the word of God comes into the wilderness (Luke 3).
What the authors of both Kings and Luke knew is that ravens and peasants have more to do with the movement of history than all the best laid plans of kings. To adopt an apocalyptic style is to follow the biblical lead and turn our attention away from the power of kings and toward the power of ravens and peasant prophets in the wilderness (210).
To see history from the perspective of the biblical authors – from the perspective of Mary, Isaiah, and Simeon – is to look for signs of restoration in surprising, usually unexamined places. It is to be liberated from the need to align ourselves with those who claim to possess the power to control history, more often than not through the application of brute force, in order to protect ourselves and our interests. More, it is to be freed from the overwhelming, paralyzing fear that prevents us from engaging the world’s suffering with the self-giving love of God in Christ.
Such liberation leads us not to think naïvely that being members of the people of God assures us freedom from suffering, but rather that God is ever and always at work, even in the midst of suffering, bringing about the redemption of all creation. As we are so liberated, we may find ourselves willing to take seriously the rest of Simeon’s words to Mary, that the infant Jesus was “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.” Perhaps, having been given a small sense of what doing so entails, we may dare to enter into the world’s suffering, equipped by the Spirit to join the prophet Anna, “to speak about the child to all who [are] looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”