growing older

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The story of Anna and Simeon caught me by surprise as I prepared for my sermon last week, taking me on an interesting journey that I hope is meaningful to you as well.

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When it comes to our Nativity scenes, we know the characters pretty well.

At the center, of course, are Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus, all swaddled up and laying in the manger. Then we generally imagine the shepherds circled around them, along with assorted farm animals, and above them an angel or two. We even throw in the Magi for good measure, even though they probably went to Nazareth some time later, rather than showing up at the barn in Bethlehem.

It’s kind of a static scene. Not much changes from Christmas to Christmas.

But there were others who were not turned into figurines over the centuries, and two of them were Anna and Simeon, who show up in our scripture for today. They didn’t make it to the manger, but they found their way to Jesus when Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple in accordance with Jewish Law, which is a euphemism for Jesus’ circumcision and also meant the family was in Jerusalem, not Bethlehem.

Simeon and Anna were both old, and they both lived at the Temple, both literally and figuratively it seems. The other thing they shared in common was they both thought they would see the Messiah—the Christ—in their lifetimes, and they had spent those lifetimes preparing to meet him.

We don’t get many details about either of them. All we know about Simeon was that he was up in years and he lived in “prayerful expectancy’ that Israel would get help from God. We know Anna was married for seven years and then widowed for eighty-four. If we assume who was married young, as most young women were in those days, she would have been around a hundred and ten at least.

Both lived in anticipation of God doing something important before they died. And both—once they saw Jesus and held him and talked about him—considered their lives complete. They must have been exceptional people because they were willing to devote their lives to finding God.

Luke paints a lovely scene with these two and the child, but what caught my mind’s eye was the juxtaposition of Anna and Simeon declaring their life’s work complete and Jesus at the beginning of his life growing “strong in body and wise in spirit”—well, just growing, period.

Anna and Simeon were kind, compassionate, faithful, and hopeful people. The point I want to make here is not at their expense. They had lived their whole long lives looking for the Messiah, a singularity of purpose that gave them meaning. They enter Jesus’ story at the end of their time on earth, but Jesus was just getting started.

Jesus kept growing. In the next paragraph of Luke 2, Jesus comes back to the Temple at age twelve, again with his parents, and this time Luke wraps the scene up by saying that he “matured, growing up in both body and spirit, blessed by both God and people.”

Anna and Simeon were among the first to bless him because they had spent their lives preparing to meet him.

Yes, Jesus was young and Anna and Simeon were old, but growth is not a function of age, particularly when it comes to faith. That is one of the takeaways at the heart of the Incarnation: God put on human skin and kept learning. Jesus wasn’t born fully formed. He had to grow and mature physically, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally.

We get glimpses of him as an infant and as a child, and then we get a larger picture of what he was like in his early thirties before he was executed for challenging the political and religious institutions to not be so sure of themselves. What we don’t get is a picture of Jesus as an old person. He never grew to be Anna or Simeon’s age.

What do you think Jesus would have been like at sixty, or seventy, or eighty?

It is interesting to me that when I typed that question into my Google search window I only found one article—a nice piece written by Patrick Reardon, a former Catholic priest who became an attorney. He mused about Jesus joining his group of friends:

If Jesus had joined us for breakfast, he would have joined us in talking about memory lapses—Why did I walk into this room?—and about a close friend who died a couple years ago and about a grandchild and about someone we know who’s grieving over the death of a sibling. He would have taken part in our discussion of trying to figure out how to relate to our adult children who, to our great surprise, have lives that don’t have us at the center.

And Jesus would have joined with us in bemoaning our aches and pains and health worries and limitations. And he would have had his share. He was human, after all.

Yes, Jesus was human. So are we. Many of us in this room may find it easier to identify with Anna and Simeon than the baby in the manger, or even, perhaps, to Jesus in his thirties. As inviting as Reardon’s imagination is that would have Jesus sitting down for coffee to talk about his aches and pains, let’s look beyond how Jesus might be like us and ask ourselves what it means to be Christlike at our ages, whatever those ages are.

One of the ways we talk about age is we say we are growing older, as if we are still learning and age is about more than endurance. Anna and Simeon grew older and more insightful. I suppose they also grew more patient as they waited for the Christ to come.

Whatever our age, how are we growing older? What are we doing to expand our sense of God’s presence? How are we becoming more Christlike?

When my mother turned eighty, she bought an electric keyboard so she could take piano lessons. She had played the piano as a girl but had not kept it up. She told my brother and me that she bought the keyboard because she wanted to keep learning, and what she wanted to learn was how to play her favorite hymns. She went to lessons, she practiced, and she learned to play the songs she loved. When she died, Ginger and I kept the keyboard so that when we turn eighty we can take lessons as well.

Often, in our culture, when we talk about growth, we think in terms of accomplishment or progress, as though growth means we have to do more, earn more, make more, BE more. But Anna and Simeon grew by showing up at the Temple every day. In his whole life, Jesus was a never more than a day or two journey from the Temple where he met them. He grew, Luke says, in body and spirit and also in the depth of relationships with God and the people around him.

Regardless of our age, we have room to grow. May we learn from Simeon and Anna and grow in patience and compassion, in focus and devotion, so we can see Christ in ways we have not before. And may we, like Jesus, continue to grow in our relationships with God and with one another. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

2 COMMENTS

  1. Today’s post reminds me of my dear neighbor who was the closest thing to an old Jesus that I have ever known:
    Mr. Kilpatrick lived across the street from me over 40 years ago. He was a wise, kind, generous, humble, and patient man. He was in his 80s, widowed, a retired Presbyterian minister, tall and strong, and a brilliant organic vegetable gardener. He had a few fruit trees and one enormous pecan tree. In the fall Mr Kilpatrick collected buckets and buckets of sweet pecans. In the winter he sat for hours by his fireplace picking pecans out of their shells. In the spring he paved his vegetable garden paths with those same pecan shells and then he planted 30 foot rows of corn, greens, beans, peas, broccoli, okra, melons, squash, cucumbers, onions and tomatoes. Throughout the summer he walked the garden paths everyday to water, tie up some runners, pull a stray weed, or quickly dispatch a hungry beetle. Some days he turned the compost pile. Blue morning-glories covered the waist-high welded-wire garden fence and a few tall sunflowers added a jolt of happy yellow to the plot. Birds, butterflies and bees kept the garden in constant motion. Each time that Mr. Kilpatrick passed over the fence, as he often did, handfuls of fresh-picked veggies I felt especially blessed.

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