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This is the time of year when we would normally be saying to one another “I wonder what the New Year will bring?” This year however, I’ve been thinking it might be best not to ask what the new year will bring. Remember New Year’s Eve 2019 and how full of hope we all were for the new decade we were entering? And then when that didn’t go so well, this time last year we were ringing in 2021, so happy to be done with 2020, full of certitude that 2021 couldn’t possibly be as bad as 2020. So here it’s the beginning days of 2022 and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s feeling a little bit tentative about this new year and a little bit low on hope for how it might turn out.
It’s good that today our scriptures offer us a beautiful story about two elderly people who have dedicated their entire lives to watching and waiting for God’s promise of a new and better day. And although we’re not told if they too had years when they felt like their hopes would never be fulfilled, we are told that when a new day did arrive for them, the day they first laid eyes on the infant Jesus, their hearts were tuned and their eyes were opened to welcome and receive the peace and goodwill his presence brought.
Throughout the gospel accounts of Jesus birth and particularly in Luke’s version of the story, an emphasis is placed on the importance of one generation sharing with the next the faith that has been nurtured in their own lives. The hopes that have been kept alive in one generation are passed onto the next through an affirmation of the ongoing capacity of the Spirit to bring new life to birth even out of dire circumstances.
In this morning’s reading Simeon, who is nearing the end of his life and Anna, an octogenarian widow, are the first to recognize Mary and Joseph as bearers of the light for the nations, the child in their arms the fulfillment of their longed for dreams come true.
What always strikes me about Anna and Simeon is that they seem like the last people you would expect to be embracing this young couple. Mary and Joseph have basically given birth to a child out of wedlock. They’ve broken long-held social conventions. Anna and Simeon are clearly people who fervently follow religious tradition. It’s why they are in the temple the day that Mary and Joseph show up.
But instead of holding on to the way things have always been or putting their faith in the establishment and fearing what’s radically new, Anna and Simeon see the possibility inherent in this next generation who break tradition to carry a message of God’s love into the world in new and lasting ways. They recognize this moment as an opportunity both to pass on their wisdom born of a lifetime of experience and as a time to bless and empower the younger set.
We all know that there’s a kind of timeless practice humanity seems to have of looking down on the next generations, criticising them and lamenting the way they don’t do things like their generation did them. How often do we say to our children “well in my day we did it this way.” How often do we wallow in our inability to decipher the language of the youth and young adults in our life? How often are we intolerant of their music, their technology and the clothes they wear? It’s as if this just comes naturally with aging. How often do we lament the loss of cherished traditions that the next generation does not seem interested in?
On the other hand, younger generations can often be out of touch at best and critical at worst of older generations. We are a society that pulses at a fast pace. We can’t wait more than a few minutes for a meal to cook or be delivered to our doorstep or for a message to travel from one computer to the next. We busy ourselves with fitness regimes and organized sports, long commutes and jammed packed work and leisure schedules, rarely taking the time to slow down and breath, let alone to develop relationships with our elders.
Theologian Matthew Fox talks about how this breakdown between generations especially when it comes to honouring our elders, is really a two- way street. He says that in the west we have created a culture in which we are always clamouring after the latest and greatest new thing and along the way we ignore the wisdom of our elders. At the same time however, he suggests that our elders have abdicated their responsibility to pass on the wisdom gained through their years and instead spend their days playing games. (He may or may not have mentioned bridge and golf in this category.)
The story of Anna and Simeon invites us to reflect on the way that we actually need each other across the generations because each generation has something to offer the next that can’t be gained from their own.
Younger generations need the wisdom of older generations and older generations need to entrust, to nurture and bless the call of younger generations to take up the mantle of care for our planet and care for the people of the world that as followers of Jesus we would say is part of God’s vision. We don’t get to retire and say “I’m done.” We still have a responsibility to our world, gifts to offer.
I recently heard David Suzuki speak about the hope that has been instilled in him by younger generations who are carrying on the legacy he has had of working to halt and reverse climate change and live with respect in creation. The wisdom that he continues to pass onto younger generations and his affirmation of them are a good example of this intergenerational connection that is so needed in our world.
I wonder what further wisdom Anna and Simeon might have to offer us as we turn the page and enter into the second year of our pandemic with the highest case counts of Covid ever, a climate that continues to bring us record breaking weather events and the ongoing challenges the many who live with poverty and oppression face.
One of the most poignant moments of today’s reading for me is the moment that Simeon reaches out and takes the infant Jesus in his arms holding him close to his heart. It’s this moment that seems to bring him the peace he has longed for. This is the moment that allows him to depart this earthly life in the assurance that all will be well. It makes me wonder what it is that we need to reach out for and take in close to our own hearts in these challenging days.
Author Barbara Brown Taylor has a beautiful midrash on today’s story in which she plays with the image of Anna and Simeon allowing themselves to be guided by the Spirit. What the Spirit guides them to do in her story, is get down on the floor with the child. “They have learned” she says, “that opening themselves up to a child is better for their soul than finishing a project or getting a raise. They know that poorer parents who can only offer a sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves will allow them more time with their children The richer ones are too busy, and older people like Simeon and Anna are now invisible to them. And so there is no tangible payback for Anna and Simeon. A child is not in charge of anything, can’t buy them anything or even remember their birthday or invite them over for supper with friends. Children have no status, no influence, no income, which makes them great teachers in God’s eyes. Simeon and Anna have learned that what you do when you think no one is looking with someone who does not count, for no reward, that is what ushers you into the presence of God.”
I would add that whether we literally take a baby in our arms or just imagine we are doing so, taking the time every day to hold close to our hearts the kind of love a newborn baby radiates, can remind us of the love in which we were first created and the love we are called to share, love that is freely given, that doesn’t really care about social conventions and has a way of opening us to possibility beyond the way things have always been.
If there is one thing that has carried us through these last two years, surely it is the love and goodwill we have given and received, often to and from people who are strangers. And surely it is the wisdom passed on from one generation to the next that tells us, even in the midst of great turmoil, there is a place of peace within each one of us that is as close to us as the beating of our hearts. This deep and abiding peace has sustained those in peril from one generation to the next and it will sustain and guide us into this new year and beyond. Perhaps it will even help us to dare to hope that this year will be better than the last.
May it be so