After the Holiday season is over, most of us return to the normal everyday routines of life.
Getting back to life as usual can be reinvigorating but it can also sometimes feel a bit ordinary and plain. Even empty. But we push through it, hoping to find some kind of inspiration for the coming year.
As I prepared for the New Year, I took some time to meditate on the events that happened in the immediate days and week following that first Christmas in Bethlehem (specifically Luke chapter 2:21-38). I wondered if the days following the first Christmas might have something to say to me as I exit my own Christmas season this year.
I’ll get to what I discovered soon enough but for now let’s take a look into this often overlooked passage in Jesus’s early life beginning one week after Mary gave birth to Jesus.
The 8th day
A week after the first Christmas, Mary and Joseph had planned to return to their life in Nazareth. Nothing was of course “normal” in the conventional sense (the incarnation notwithstanding).
Sure, in the days and weeks prior to the birth of Jesus, the young couple had shared the joy of the good news about their son with a traveling caravan of family and friends, visited with angels and nearby shepherds, but now, one week later, they were no doubt experiencing the very daunting and exciting first days of parenthood.
Late nights and early mornings and baby cries were in the realm of possibility for the young couple. And Mary was still healing and recovering from the delivery (giving birth to Jesus didn’t somehow make childbirth any less painful).
The real life human elements, very much present, were wrapped up in this divine drama enfolding.
A week following the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph did what any ordinary orthodox 1st century Jewish couple from Nazareth would do.
They had their son circumcised.
Circumcision was an ancient Jewish custom first prescribed to Abraham hundreds of years earlier and reiterated in the 2nd book of the Law of Moses, Leviticus. On the eighth day following the birth of a male baby, Jewish families dedicated their baby to God by having him circumcised. To circumcise their son was an act of trust in God.
It meant acknowledging that everything the couple had in their possession, including their child, was not theirs alone, but God’s. It also meant that they were choosing to rely on God’s help to guide them in raising their son.
Following circumcision, but forty days after childbirth, Jewish parents were also to bring a lamb (used for the burnt offering) and a pigeon or turtledove (used for the sin offering) to a priest who would then offer the animal and bird as sacrifices to God for the purification required by the Law of Moses. Families that could not afford a lamb for the first sacrifice could offer a second pigeon or turtledove instead. Interestingly, the Gospel of Luke indicates Mary and Joseph could only afford the latter.
So eight days after Jesus’s birth, they circumcised their son.
Ana and Simeon
When it was time to offer the sacrifices, Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple, and a priest named Simeon came out to greet them. He picked the baby boy up and began to speak a prophetic blessing:
These eyes of mine have seen your salvation,
Which you made ready in the presence of all peoples:
A light for revelation to the nations,
And glory for your people Israel.
He goes on to tell them that “the child has been placed here to make many in Israel fall and rise again, and as a sign that will be spoken against (yes, a sword will go through your own soul as well), so that the thoughts of many hearts may disclosed).”
Without even flinching, Luke indicates that immediately following this blessing an older woman entered the room. Her name was Ana and she was a prophetess (if you think women can’t be in the ministry or speak on behalf of God, take it up with the Biblical author of Luke’s Gospel). According to the text, Ana had been married for seven years, and after her husband died, she “never left the Temple, but worshipped with fasting and prayer night and day.”
As Ana got closer to the baby, she “gave thanks to God” and went around telling everyone who had been waiting for God to rescue Israel about the baby boy named Jesus.
Here are some of the things I took away from the story:
One, Mary and Joseph was a common first century Jewish couple who did very normal Jewish things like get their baby circumcised. Although seen as a holy and meaningful ritual, it’s something everybody in their day did. It went hand in hand with being part of the community of Israel.
Two, Mary and Joseph chose to trust God with their son. That’s why they circumcised him and that’s why they offered the sacrifices necessary that the Law of Moses required.
Three, Jesus the promised Messiah was for a period of time a baby boy. That meant he pooped and peed and cried and laughed like all babies do. He needed the milk from his mother and love from his parents (so however you understand the incarnation, God was a baby at one time in history).
Four, after taking Jesus to the Temple to be prayed for, they heard a prophetic message that the very salvation of God that was with their son was going to do something of a surgical work in their own hearts and minds too. In other words, they were in need of God’s saving work just like everyone else.
Five, sometimes faithful people who love God will need to wait years (even a lifetime) before the things God promised come to fruition. That is not some smartypants way of trying to prove things in the Bible to be true; it’s an ongoing theme in the Biblical narrative and is evident here as well.
Six, people in real life don’t fast and pray like Ana the prophetess did unless they are desperate, when all that they had has been taken from them and all that they can do to keep going is to trust their lives in the hands of God.
Seven, the prophetic message about Jesus through the mouth of Simeon still leaps off the pages of Scripture to us today: in Jesus is our salvation and he (not just what he does) is the revelation of God for the world.
Lord give us eyes to see and ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to our lives individually and as the community of faith who love, trust and follow Jesus in the coming year.
Bible quotations from the Gospel of Luke were taken from The Kingdom New Testament: A contemporary translation by New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright (Harper One, 2011).