To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel (St. Luke 2:32)
Today being Candlemas, we take time to meditate on this familiar phrase from St. Luke’s Gospel, repeated again and again, night after night in the evening worship of Christians across the centuries. This daring, poetic piece of prophecy describes the mission of an infant boy Simeon can lift in the air: the adopted son of a tradesman whose destiny it is to close the cold, cavernous gap between God and Man, Gentile and Israelite. The whole historical scene presented by Luke from the eye-witness testimony of St. Mary challenges all of our fallen, human ideas about power and glory. The personified salvation of the world appears before Simeon, not as a purple robed king or an armored general, not with fireworks or with spectacle; no, Hope made Man is revealed to the dying Simeon as a little boy carried by His blessed virgin mother coming to the temple to be purified, she accompanied by a guardian father protecting the family God had given him by dutifully following the law of that same God. I was talking with an enthusiastic atheist this week about the Gospel, and in between his memorized catechism of rejections, he struggled mightily with the idea that God could possibly save the world through a specific man from a specific people in a specific place in a specific time. He like so many others is scandalized by the particularity of God’s salvation project. Why?
Well, for starters, if the Living God cares about Simeon and Anna, Mary and Joseph, then here is a God very different from some abstract universe ordering force or a lattice-work of cosmic logic: a specter which couldn’t possible love me, and so I am under no obligation to love it. It is deceptively comforting to imagine a god or a universe who doesn’t care about us—modern people who cling to this view are merely plagiarizing the ancient Greek Epicureans—this old fairy-tale is comforting because it makes us the highest intelligence: it makes us gods. Far more terrifying and uncomfortable is the reality: we are known by God, known by name, known by our deepest fears and unspoken dreams, known by our loves and our hatreds. And what we find today in the witness of the Gospel is a God who cares intensely about individual people, often the people for whom the world has no use, integrating them into a salvation which begins in a child and grows into a new heaven and a new earth. The Holy Spirit could have dragged King Herod or Caesar Augustus to fall on their knees before the world’s true ruler, if one were making up this story such a fabrication would make much more sense to our fallen logic, but it is an old man and an old woman whose faith in God’s promises grants them a royal audience with the Earth’s true king. Now we begin to see that the God being revealed here is not just one who knows us personally, but the God who deeply cares about what we do and why.
Worse, this knowing and judging God gives rewards that make no sense to a materialistic Westerner, rewards like being able to hold the Savior in our hands for a few moments or dying with the assured hope which blots out fear. After all, we can hear the darkness of the ages calling out to us even now, “Is that it, where is Simeon’s gold plated camel? Where’s Anna’s jet?” Anna has spent 84 years as a widow, devoting her life to fasting and praying night and day in the temple. Where is her money or power, where are the familiar signs which we use to mark worth in our world? Uncomfortably for all of us, they are nowhere to be found here because we are dealing with the true God, and He just doesn’t care about our fallen calculations of human worth; no, Simeon and Anna are wealthy beyond measure because they are partakers of the riches of Christ: they are living, breathing contradictions of the fallen world’s values because everything about Christ is a contradiction of the world and its values.
Simeon himself, while giving a dark and foreboding blessing to St. Mary, tells her that her Son will be “a sign that is opposed” or as the church father, Basil the Great puts it, “a sign that is contradicted.” The Gospels again and again shows us that Christ truly is this sign of contradiction: an infant king rewarding faith with His presence, a triumphant messiah dying on a cross for a world which hates Him, a resurrected God/Man followed by men and women carrying crosses which reveal new and everlasting life. In fact, as St. Paul tells us, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:27-29). Living in this contradiction, living in Christ, only makes sense when we open our eyes—or really, have our eyes opened—to the emptiness of the fallen world’s temporary power and decaying might. Every part of this emptiness we accept in place of the fullness of God places a barrier between us and the world saving mission to which God has called us. Inside the truth of this contradiction, we gain the world by losing it, we gain life by losing it.
This perspective helps us better understand Simeon’s blessing to St. Mary. He promises her that “a sword will pierce through [her] own soul also…” We might very reasonably ask, what the heck kind of blessing is this? If I showed up at your house and included in my blessing the promise that you would be gutted like a fish, you might be tempted to call the cops, or at least kindly ask me to stop blessing you. But here, we have to come to grips with the contradiction, we have to understand the reality the fallen world desperately doesn’t want us to know: the pain is the blessing, or perhaps more clearly, to be in pain with Christ is the blessing. This bracing prophecy may be the ultimate contradiction for a culture in which comfort is king and autonomy and selfishness are duke and duchess. The fight St. Mary signed up for at the Annunciation will not be a fight without cost; she will see the Son she holds in her arms be beaten and destroyed by evil, but it is this pain which marks St. Mary as a special part of the holy remnant—part of the Simeons and Annas, part of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness while their government and temple collaborate with evil. To be attacked and pierced by men and devils is a repudiation of the collaborator’s comfort—the soul-deadening ease of the Vichy—it is nothing less than the blood stained battle flag of the victorious in Christ. Simeon’s blessing and promise of future pain to St. Mary, and to us through her, is the sign of one’s nearness to Christ and the true humanity He embodies—the passage from pain and death to glory His resurrection makes a certainty.Knowing this hard and beautiful truth, we are liberated from the fear of suffering, and we can joyously suffer for God and Man with steely resolve.
On the contrary, the terrible evil of so much of what passes for modern Christianity is that it tells us to be Christians so that we might not ever suffer; it tells us that suffering is evil, and so we should make peace with whatever oppressor we have to in order to alleviate our suffering. This new summary of the law is the same as that carried by godless materialists, an ascendant group whose seductive way of life has been made more possible in our own time due to material abundance and modern technology’s unnatural ability to make us feel like we are connected with real people when we are actually desperately alone—it hides us from suffering just as it hides us from real joy. Of course, the tragic irony of the godless lover of himself and his things is that he will suffer eventually. I read a haunting comment from a young man the other day who said he only thinks about death when his smart phone goes black for a second, and he can momentarily see his own face reflected in the darkness. Real Christianity runs to that darkness, no matter the suffering, to save the scared and alone, we walk through the valley of the shadow of death knowing we never have to be afraid again.
We are not afraid because the light has come, and it has revealed the path to glory. It has revealed the contradictions of the Christian life, or as St. Paul puts it, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9). To live this way is the only way to prepare ourselves for a world without contradiction: a world where there is, love but no betrayal, joy but no sadness, life but no death. So, let us today and every day join with St. Mary and St. Joseph, St. Simeon and St. Anna, and all the saints of the holy remnant, let us live lives which confound the wise, let us show all men we trust that true life comes from a cross.