Reading Ramblings – December 27, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday after Christmas, December 27, 2015

Texts: Exodus 13:1-3a, 11-15; Psalm 111; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:22-40

Context: The Christ-child has arrived. The Son of God incarnate, really and truly incarnate. So his parents do for him what the Law requires. In this reading, we witness Mary and Joseph presenting Jesus for redemption. This ceremony is known as Pidyon Haben and is still performed today by devout Jews. It applies only to a Jewish woman who gives birth to her first child, and that first child must be a boy. The father presents the baby to a Kohen, a descendant of Aaron. A ritual exchange of words ensues, with the Kohen asking the father if the father would rather have his son back or keep the redemption money, traditionally five silver coins (used in lieu of the blood sacrifice required in Exodus). The father indicates the boy. The Kohen may keep the coins, but sometimes returns them as a gift to the family. There is no option for the father to refuse his son back, or for the Kohen to keep him. It is purely a formality.

The readings today stress incorporation into God’s family. Jesus arrives in the world on Christmas, becoming part of the human family. He becomes part of God’s chosen people through the faithful actions of his parents.

Exodus 13:1-3a, 11-15 – God has finally allowed the Pharaoh to be defeated. In darkness, the firstborn of Egypt dead in their homes, the Israelites are ordered to depart. Yet even as they are leaving, God is instructing Moses as to how they will remember this event. The Passover commemorates the Exodus, but the redemption of firstborn sons commemorates the deaths of the Egyptian firstborn children and animals. The redemption is to be symbolic – God is not commanding child sacrifice. Rather, by a very specific act associated with a firstborn son, God’s people will be reminded of what their freedom from slavery and death cost them. Pharaoh had decreed the death of all Hebrew children. No redemption was offered. God requires redemption only for male first-borns, with the understanding that the redemption is mandatory. The father cannot choose not to redeem his son. Likewise, God could not choose not to save his people from their death sentence in Egypt. His faithfulness to his covenant promises is re-enacted with each generation.

Psalm 111 – Praise is given to God for who He is and what He has done, and for the fact that He himself has caused his people to remember these works (v.4) as a source of remembering his mercy and grace. Certainly we are prone, in this age of instant information and a never-ending cascade of bad news, to forget God’s goodness, how He acts today to sustain us and how He has acted in the past. It could easily be argued that were it not for God commanding the remembrance of his gracious and merciful acts, we would be as quick to forget them as his people in the Old Testament. Our memories are all too short, and our attention all too quickly diverted.

Colossians 3:12-17 – As with God’s chosen people, there are signs by which his people today are marked. While followers of Christ are not compelled to circumcise their baby boys or redeem their male first-borns with silver, our identity in Christ is just as much a part of who we are. Those brought into the body of Christ are not marked physically, but by changes in their very nature. We become marked by peace – not because we are naturally peaceful but because our peace comes from Christ through the Holy Spirit. Baptized into Christ’s death and anticipation rising again as with his resurrection, our lives are transformed by this hope. It is not that Christians are nice. It is that Christians are to live in awareness of all God has given them already in his Son.

Luke 2:22-40 – Joseph and Mary are obedient in bringing their young son to the Temple to redeem him there with the customary sacrifice. They are also there to perform the purification rituals required for Mary (v.22). Mary would have been considered ritual unclean for seven days after the birth of Jesus, and for an additional 33 days (Leviticus 12:1-8). As they come to the Temple then, Jesus is already over a month old, Mary will have already offered her sacrifice, and they are en route to the redemption ritual for Jesus.

Their minds are no doubt preoccupied with many things, and we can be fairly sure that an encounter with Simeon and then Anna was not among them. Simeon’s words are still used in traditional western liturgy and are known as the Nunc Dimittis, which are the opening words in Latin. While many are inclined to interpret Simeon’s song as a request for death, yet this seems an unlikely purpose. While Simeon is often assumed to be old, we are not explicitly told this in the text. We are told that the Holy Spirit has prompted him on this particular day to go to the Temple. As such, Simeon’s song seems much more appropriate as an acknowledgement that God the Holy Spirit has fulfilled his promise to Simeon, and Simeon is content to return to his home.

Perhaps we assume Simeon is aged because of his request to hold the baby. Would a mother or father naturally relinquish their newborn to the hands of a stranger? But if Simeon is not threatening, perhaps they would consider it. Simeon also confers a blessing to Mary and Joseph, an action typically associated with someone older. On the other hand, we are told that Anna is advanced in years (v.36). She is a prophetess and a widow, and she is described in terms that make her a holy woman. Is she drawn towards the holy couple because of Simeon? The text isn’t clear. But it is clear that she has been divinely guided in her response.

Luke’s first two chapters have painted Jesus’ parents as obedient. Mary receives Gabriel’s message in humility. They circumcise Jesus on schedule, they give him the name Gabriel commanded Mary to. Mary offers the appropriate sacrifice for her childbirth. They come to the Temple for the redemption of Jesus. They receive the prophecies of Simeon and Anna. Then they return home, having accomplished everything according to the Law of the Lord (v.39). Everything has been done appropriately for Jesus. He has been brought properly into the family of God’s people.

The combination of the miraculous and the mundane can easily escape us in these opening chapters of Luke. Angelic visitations, miraculous pregnancies, and then the ordinary, common procedures of any new parent. Luke will round out his description of Jesus’ youth in the next few verses, still precious little information by our modern standards of biography. But Luke clearly establishes his purpose. Jesus embodies fully the divine and human. He is conceived miraculously but delivered normally. In the routine events of taking him to the Temple his extraordinary future is prophesied. He is the incarnate Son of God by whom everything that has existence now exists (John 1:3). Yet He is brought into God’s chosen people by the ordinary means. If He is to substitute for us under divine wrath, He must embody us in everyday ways. He can be our substitute because He is our brother according to the flesh.

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