Thursday, December 14, 2017

Overlapping Ages - Advent Meditation

(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, "Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel. 

And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed."
-Luke 2:25-35


This is the strangest baby announcement you could imagine.

Here is Simeon, this old and devout man who has been waiting on God's Messiah. Simeon hobbling up to the temple as he does every day, but with something prickling at the corners of his awareness. He comes to the temple and finds the child Jesus and first he rejoices. “My eyes have seen your salvation! A light for the Gentiles! Glory for Israel!”

After which, naturally, he starts to give these love-besotted new parents the bad news. First, says Simeon, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel.” That isn't a picture of happy bliss. It evokes one of the images Jesus often uses of himself from the prophet Isaiah, that of a stone people stumble on. “God is coming in salvation,” Simeon says. “Jesus will complete God's mission, but that is going to shake things up. Many of those in exalted places are going to fall on Him, even as many who are lowly will be lifted up.”

The grim tidings continue. This child is destined “to be a sign that will be spoken against.” It's not just that Jesus is going to trip people up. People will oppose Him. They will speak against Him and stand as His enemies. Light and glory has come, and it is really going to tick some people off. 

Ultimately, grief will come to Mary as well. “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” This is almost certainly a reference to Jesus's crucifixion and the violence of His death. But it's also a description of an emotional reality. Mary is going to be grieved and wounded by what Jesus is doing.

All of which sounds rather terrible. None of it sounds like the happy days of salvation Simeon just proclaimed. How does it fit together, these glad tidings and grim warnings?

In Simeon's day, most faithful people believed that, right now, they were in the bad times. Scripture calls it “this age.” Which means more than just “right now” - it is trying to describe an era, a time period. This present age, characterized by sin and sadness and exile and oppression. In the future was the age to come, when things would be good again. That was the age of salvation and joy and life and freedom. What those faithful people expected was that, when the Messiah, the Christ, came, that would be the turning point. This age would be over, and the age to come would begin.

We can still fall into this way of thinking. If we replace the coming of Jesus in history with the coming of Jesus in our lives, with our salvation, we often talk this way too. That there was a time before Christ that was dark and sad, but now that he is come, we expect unmitigated glory and light. Simeon is saying that this is wrong. Instead, as Jesus comes, we see two things being true at the same time. We see the age to come arriving. Salvation comes, and glory, and light. But sin and conflict and death remain. It is both ages at the same time.

Which helps us make sense of our world and our lives. We do not live exclusively in this age or the age to come. Instead, what we inhabit is the overlap of the ages.

As much as this isn't the good news we perhaps hoped for, it is the news we need for our time. It safeguards us from both triumphalism and defeatism. We should not expect perfect victory in this age – it will always be hobbled by sin and colored by death. Yet that frees us from discouragement, because it means the struggles we know so well aren't aberrations. They are normal. So we can walk in faith, knowing that challenges will continue but confident that they will not prevail.
The threefold terror of love, a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.

Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart's blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?

-W.B. Yeats, The Mother of God

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