The Irish playwright Samuel Beckett is probably best known for his play “Waiting for Godot”. In the play, two men, Vladimir and Estragon wait upon a man (Godot) who never arrives. They do not know when or where they are to meet Godot only that it is to occur near a tree. Two other characters are eventually introduced. Estragon and Vladimir continue to go back and forth on the benefits of waiting for Godot (who will never arrive). It is a play where nothing happens. Yet it is built on the idea of waiting for something to happen and the assumption that something will happen. In this way, it is like our gospel reading.
I wonder about Simeon’s assumptions. Who did he think was coming? What kind of sign did he anticipate? Was he expecting the Christ to be the infant child of peasants from Galilee? How would he spot the restoration of Israel when it crossed his path? How many times had he misidentified the Messiah? Were there times he’d been confused, mistaken, and just plain wrong? Would he die before the realization of his dream? Why was Simeon’s acknowledgement so special? He’s not Dumbledore or Gandalf. He appears one time in the Bible. Luke tells us that he’s an elderly man who’s become a self-appointed lookout for the Messiah. Simeon gave himself this job. It’s a good job but it doesn’t appear to be a divinely appointed position. Simeon, for all the fanfare and poetic language, is waiting on Godot. Except in Simeon’s case, Godot is Jesus and Jesus shows up.
Simeon was looking for clarity. Day after day, he went to the Temple with one goal in mind. If he encountered the Christ in the temple was this going to be “the” answer to Israel’s problems. Could he die in peace?
In many ways, Simeon is like us. We need the big reveal. Without obfuscation, hesitation, or deviation; we want to know, is this Jesus? Like Simeon, we want Jesus presented to us on the silver platter of his mother’s arms. His presence should be bereft of any contradiction. As the artists of our own lives, we install the Holy Spirit spot lights for the grand moment. Nothing should be left to chance. We want to know: when we come to the Temple; are we or are we not meeting the Christ? Yes, we want to be told, this is Jesus. Once we receive our answer, we can die in peace. Whether that’s tomorrow or in forty years, we’ve got our positive identification. Jesus is as he has been presented. No more thought is required. We want Jesus and we’d prefer him in black in white.
Isn’t this what we have in this story? Jesus falls into our lap like a baby wearing a name tag. What could be easier for us or Simeon? If Jesus simply drops out the sky, fully assembled, labeled, and ready to be deployed; what never happens? We don’t engage with Jesus, ask about where he came from, or more importantly; where he is going? Jesus is little more than a fashion accessory we claim ownership to without fully understanding it was made by slave labor in Bangladesh. Once we grow weary and trends change, we cast aside things we receive easily and acquire so lightly.
Simeon’s story is about coming to terms with the contradictions which Jesus embodies. Simeon’s encounter with Joseph and Mary reminds us that there are no easy answers served up on silver platters.
The entire interaction illustrates the contradictions that will embody the whole of Jesus’ life. Simeon says, “Get ready for lots of gray areas and uncertainty.” Some of it will even be painful.
The first thing Simeon says is, “This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner most thoughts of many will be revealed.” We’ve seen this already. There was King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents; the ancient precursor to events like Newtown and Columbine, where hundreds of children were murdered in the name of preserving Herod’s power. Jesus is one out of many. When he is born, Jesus is one who lives while others die. At his death, Jesus is one who dies so other may live. His life begins and ends in contradictions.
Simeon says this to the peasant parents of an infant from Galilee who probably understood very little about what any of this meant. They had yet to come to terms with the miraculous nature of the birth and the reality that their son’s life was in danger.
A teenage mother, a cabinet maker, and a newborn are told by an old man they didn’t know and had never seen, “a sword will pierce your innermost being.” Those words were directed at the mother. True, yes. Appropriate, not really. Contradictory, you bet. When you’ve heard, “Glory to God in the highest” from shepherds and angels and now you’re being told about swords piercing your heart, I’d say there is a degree of contradiction. Is Mary’s life, along with that of her child, being threatened? We think we know what he means because we’ve read the end of the story. As Luke is writing it, Mary doesn’t know the ending. Nothing is set in stone. She’s living it from one moment to the next. Put yourself in her shoes.
Today, some people feel they’re entitled to definitive pronouncements from the Bible. If they don’t receive them, they leave the church or start new denominations. Mary couldn’t leave Jesus. Certainly, there were nights after visiting Simeon that Mary too prayed for something more definitive from God. She embraced the contradiction fully in Luke 14:26 when Jesus called on people to hate their parents, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” She didn’t stop loving him. Mary carried the contradictions to the foot of the cross. The unpredictability and the flexibility first called for by Gabriel in the contradictory claim to be both mother and virgin would not allow her to do otherwise. To believe in God, her Son, she had to embrace the contradictions.
Beckett creates an emotional distance allowing the audience to consider a single idea: two men waiting on someone who will never arrive. Luke does the same. Step back and what do we see? We meet two people (Simeon and Anna) waiting on someone to arrive. Within their waiting we witness years of assumptions, questions, hopes, dreams, fears, and faith.
Luke’s story poses a series of questions about the very nature of discipleship by their waiting, the baby’s arrival, and his family’s response. What happens to your faith when it is upended with conjecture and contradiction? What does it say about God to wait so long for an answer? When the world is rising and falling, will the center of your faith hold? Will your center hold when your heart is pierced, when it’s painful to believe and be faithful? These are some of the questions raised by this one encounter. This is a faith shaping, disciple making story. Luke is telling more than Mary’s story. This is our story.
Luke is also helping form a Christian community still trying to find its center, its way and meaning, after Jesus’ final appearance in the Temple. In a way, this is both a Christmas and Easter story.
This is a story addressed to an entire Christian community, one that’s been through Easter and asking the question, “what next?” This question is not only for Mary and Joseph but for anyone who’s met Jesus and calls themselves a disciple.
Despite the uncertainty in the words they heard from Anna and Simeon, Mary and Joseph embraced the contradictions inherent in the Good News. They found themselves in changing situations but their roles remained the same. Despite the rising and falling of Israel or the lifting of swords, she would still be Mary and he would still be Jesus. You’re still a disciple. Relationships matter more than the ebb and flow of Israel. In other words, death doesn’t have the final word and discipleship is no longer a waiting game.
On Feast of St. Thomas Becket
December 29th, 2017