Presentation of the Holy Child

PLEASE NOTE: This is my last entry in my 2023 Journal. Tomorrow's post will appear in a new page on my website. Here is a link to that page. You might want to bookmark it for future reference.

One thing about having lived my life inside the church is that I’ve seen the days of Christmas land on every day of the week. When Christmas Eve lands on a Sunday, Epiphany will be on a Saturday. Epiphany is always January 6, after 12 days of Christmas. The first Sunday after Epiphany, which this year is January 7, is observed as the Baptism of Jesus. The flow is confusing for many because most congregations want to have some kind of Epiphany observance on a Sunday. In the congregation where we are now active, the focus of worship on January 7 will be on Epiphany. This congregation has a tradition of “Star Words” which is something that is new to us, but is an important part of the congregation’s observances of Epiphany. From my point of view, star words are a blending of a recognition of Epiphany with the star that the magi followed to find their way to Bethlehem and New Years Day. My sense of the tradition is that New Year’s Day in the Christian Calendar is the First Sunday of Advent rather than the secular holiday on January 1, but the church exists in the midst of secular culture and our society definitely celebrates New Years at midnight as the clock turns from December 31 to January 1.

So regardless of the cycle of readings and the flow of worship in the church, most church members think of today as New Year’s Eve and think of the day in terms of the Rose Bowl Parade in the morning and New Year’s Eve in Times Square in the evening. As a lifelong morning person it has long suited me to celebrate New Year’s Eve on Eastern Standard Time, so I generally don’t stay up late on the holiday. I’m not much for New Year’s Eve parties, and generally go to bed at the same time as other days. Having moved from the Mountain Time Zone to the Pacific Time Zone makes that easy for me. When it is midnight in New York City, it is 9 pm where I live - a good time for me to begin thinking about heading for bed.

Over the years, however, I have learned to make at least some nod to the secular holiday of New Years in the midst of Christmas recognition in the church. To make matters even a bit more confusing, the Revised Common Lectionary has a companion cycle of Bible readings for every day and most years I have used that cycle as a guide for my personal study and meditation. So I haven’t been big on New Year’s resolutions or other activities.

As a practical matter, church leaders can’t ignore the flow of the calendar in the lives of the folks in the pews, however. Most folks think in terms of New Years on the week after Christmas and while Christmas Eve services are among the largest in terms of attendance, New Year’s Eve is among the lightest in terms of the number of people in church. As a pastor one learns to go with those cycles. During my active career I was often pretty exhausted by the time the Christmas Eve services were concluded and I generally took the following weeks as a time of rest. When our children were in school, we often took a bit of vacation during the week following Christmas so I often was not in the pulpit the next week.

The Gospel for today is the story of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple where he was recognized as the Messiah by two elders of the temple, Simeon and Anna. Simeon’s age is not reported, but the Gospel of Luke refers to Anna as a prophet who was a widow and eighty-four years old. Were it to fall on me to preach, which it does not this year, I would probably comment on the power of the relationship between those of us who are elders and the very young in our midst. I remember well a Christmas early in the years I served in Rapid City, when I walked into the congregation on the Sunday after Christmas and picked up an infant from his mother’s arms and held him for the entire congregation to see and commented that every child is a Holy Child and that part of the recognition of Christmas is the recognition of the holiness of the children in our midst. I’m not active on FaceBook, but I look at the site for news of friends and relatives and it has become a practice for me to check out the page of the man who was less than a month old when I held him in front of the congregation during Christmas many years ago. Since I proclaimed him as a holy child, it makes sense for me to follow his life for continuing signs of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel, however, does not speak of an ongoing relationship between Jesus and the elders in the temple. In fact it implies that both Simeon and Anna died shortly after meeting Jesus. Simeon, upon meeting Jesus, said, “Master, 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 peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Those words, usually slightly modified, are frequently read at the funeral of an elder. I’ve read them at many funerals over the years and so associate them with end of life. By giving Anna’s age the implication is that her life is nearly over, though there are Biblical stories of people who have lived longer than Anna’s eighty-four years.

The season of Christmas is an opportunity for faithful people of all ages to recognize the presence of the sacred in children. The church is a community that provides a safe place for elders and children to come together. Now that I have become an elder, I am deeply grateful for the presence of children in my life and in the community of the church. And sometimes, as was the case so many years ago, parents trust me to hold their children for a few minutes and experience the holiness that Simeon and Anna knew on the day of Jesus’ presentation in the temple.

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