Some years ago, an immigrant family had arrived in America. Shortly after, the father got a job working in a factory. As Christmas came around, the company treated the factory workers to a Christmas party (at the time they didn’t have to say “holiday party”), and the factory was then closed on Christmas Day, so workers could be with their families and go to church. It was this family’s first Christmas in America. On December 26th, the Sixth Day of Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day, the father stayed home from work, because the factories and businesses back in the “old country” remained closed for Christmas beyond Christmas Day. The full Twelve Days of Christmas were observed by everyone in some such fashion. Well, a bit later that morning, the phone rang. It was the factory foreman. “Where are you? Why aren’t you here at work?” The father answered, “I am at home. It’s Christmas.” The foreman replied, “No, it’s not! Christmas was yesterday. Get down here and get to work!”
To the world out there, especially the retail world, the business world, the government world, Christmas is over. It ended at midnight on December 25th. Stores began their “after Christmas” sales the next day—with a few online outlets not even waiting, but starting “after Christmas” sales on Christmas Day! The run-up to Christmas—the start of the secular “Christmas” season—began the day after Thanksgiving, or even earlier. Certainly by December it was in full swing, with radio stations playing Christmas or “holiday” music. In the Church, of course, we observed the Season of Advent before we got to the Christmas Season. The Christmas season is short, just twelve days long—twelve and a half or thirteen, if you include Christmas Eve. Yet even for many Christians, Christmas is over—over with the hustle and bustle of shopping for gifts, of getting ready for company, of setting out on the road for the family Christmas gathering.
Yes, today in the Church it’s the First Sunday after Christmas, meaning after Christmas Day. Yet we’re still in the Season of Christmas; as I said earlier, today is the Sixth Day of Christmas, with six more to go, through January 5th. Our text for today follows in Luke’s Gospel shortly after his account of the Nativity of Our Lord, the first Christmas. The angels and the shepherds! Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, and the Babe, lying in a manger! Oh, we can still hear that first, heavenly, blessèd Christmas carol, as that company of the heavenly host sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!” Gloria in excelsis Deo! And today we get to hear another blessed Christmas carol, sung by Simeon: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a Light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.” That’s how many of us learned to sing it in the Divine Service.
Wait, that’s a Christmas carol? Isn’t that the Nunc Dimittis, which we sing after the Lord’s Supper? Indeed, it is. You may well agree with one seminary professor who calls it “the oddest Christmas carol.” What makes it so odd for a Christmas carol? In this song Simeon is blessing God (Lk 2:28) as he recognizes, by the Holy Spirit’s revelation, that this Child is the Lord’s Salvation, His Light of revelation to the Gentile nations, and He is the Glory of God’s chosen people Israel. We say the same things in many of our best-loved Christmas carols. So what makes Simeon’s song “the oddest Christmas carol”? Luke tells us, “The Holy Spirit was upon [Simeon] 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” (vv. 25c–26). Once Simeon has seen the Christ, once he has held and beheld the infant Jesus in his arms, he declares, “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word” (v. 29). Simeon sings that he’s ready to die. That is an odd Christmas carol, then, isn’t it? What’s with all this talk about death in the midst of the light and life of Christmas? Who wants to sing about death, or even think about it, during such a joyous time as Christmas? Death intrudes enough into our everyday lives; can’t we just shut the door and leave it outside for a change? Just for a little while, during this season. Now if we could do that, avoid death’s grief during the joy of Christmas, then we probably could get more of the world wanting to observe Christmas as long as possible.
Yet we know that we can’t avoid death and grief during Christmas, just as we can’t avoid them before or after the season, either. Death doesn’t take a holiday. Because of sin, we feel its effects, its sting, at Christmas, too. Some of us have said farewell to a loved one at Christmastime; we’re reminded of a departed loved one by a favorite Christmas hymn or stanza, by a special ornament on the tree, or a particular Christmas custom. In today’s Gospel, we hear of Anna, a prophetess, who had lived many days, and she had been a widow for many years, perhaps as long as 84 years. How did Luke know about her long widowhood? He probably heard it from Mary, who may even have learned about it from Anna herself. She could recount the sadness of her life, yet also joyfully tell many others that this Child was the long-awaited Redemption and Consolation and Comfort of Israel! Luke doesn’t tell us whether Simeon was an old man or young; church tradition says he was aged. It is with great joy, upon seeing the Christ Child, and by the Spirit and by faith recognizing Him for who and what He is—the Salvation and Light and Glory of God—that he sings, as it were, “Lord, You have set me free, free from fear, especially free from the fear of death. I am ready to die!” That ought to be the faithful declaration of every Christian.
In last Sunday’s Bible study, we looked at three saints’ days that follow Christmas Day, plus one that is shortly before Christmas Day. The Apostle St. Thomas is commemorated on December 21st; his symbol in our stained glass windows is a builder’s square with a spear, because according to tradition, while he was building churches in India he was martyred by being run through with a spear. On the Second, Third, and Fourth Days of Christmas, December 26, 27, and 28, the Church has long remembered St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr; the Apostle and Evangelist St. John; and the Holy Innocents, the baby boys murdered in Bethlehem by order of King Herod. All of these whom we remember, except one, died as martyrs. Only John died a natural death, though certainly he was willing to die for the sake of his Lord Jesus and for the sake of the Gospel [and for this he was exiled to the island of Patmos]. Death is not an intruder into the Christmas story or the Christmas season; it is part and parcel of them. The Feast, or Festival, of the Holy Innocents is discussed on the KIDS in the Divine Service insert today. Parents, talk with your children about this part of the story of Jesus’ Nativity. Don’t avoid it. It is a lot closer to the everyday reality for our Christian brothers and sisters in many lands around the world, especially in the Middle East, the region where our Lord Jesus Christ was born, and grew up, lived, died, and rose again.
There are a few other things to recognize and remember in this Gospel. This particular event which Luke describes takes place on the fortieth day from Jesus’ birth. The fortieth day from Christmas is February 2nd, which the world knows as Groundhog Day. (As an aside, when someone tells you that the Christmas story, or the story of Jesus, or of the Bible, is just not believable to modern people with scientific understanding, remind that person that every February 2nd meteorologists—professional scientists—get their “scientific” forecast from an overgrown ground squirrel, a rodent!) The Church observes February 2nd as the Feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord. It’s also known as Candlemas, the day for blessing church candles for the coming year—a fitting way to remember Simeon’s song of God’s “Light of revelation to the Gentiles,” to you and me. That day, along with some others, such as the Annunciation of Our Lord, the Visitation of Our Lord, and the Nativity of John the Baptist, may be thought of as separated pieces of the Christmas season scattered around the calendar. Think of the songs which were first sung on those occasions: Zechariah’s song, the Benedictus, “Blessèd be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people”; and Mary’s song, the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”; and sing them as the joyous Advent and Christmas hymns that they are, along with Simeon’s song and the song of the angels.
Jesus’ presentation in the temple on the fortieth day from His birth brings to mind other fortieth days in salvation history: the forty days and nights rain fell upon the earth during the Great Flood, in which Noah and his family were saved in the ark through the water—a reminder of the greater flood, Holy Baptism, and the rescuing ark of God’s Church; the forty days and nights Moses was up on the mountain in the cloud with the LORD, neither eating nor drinking, receiving the Sinai Covenant with the Ten Commandments; the forty days the Israelites spied out the promised land, and because they refused to go in as the LORD commanded, they wandered the wilderness for forty years; for forty days, Goliath defied the armies of Israel to defeat him, until the LORD delivered him into David’s hand, and David slew him “in the name of the LORD of hosts” (1 Sam 17); the forty days and nights Elijah ate and drank and so was strengthened on Horeb, the mount of God (1 Ki 19:8), a reminder of the food and drink which strengthens us on this “mount of God”; Jesus’ forty days and nights of fasting in the wilderness, when He defeated Satan and his temptations; and the forty days from His resurrection, during which many witnesses saw Him alive, until He ascended into heaven, where He is seated at the right hand of God the Father. All of these forties are God’s works of salvation, redemption, and deliverance for His people. As Jesus was presented in His temple on His fortieth day, Mary could have brought “a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering,” or “if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering” (Lev 12:6, 8), for her atonement, to restore her to the liturgical life of the community. Mary brought two doves, presumably because she was too poor to afford a lamb. Yet she did have a lamb with her, The Lamb, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, the Final Sacrifice who would offer Himself on the cross! “Nails, spear, shall pierce Him through, The cross be borne for me, for you.” This, too, is the whole point of Christmas, that the Virgin-born, the One laid in a manger, was born to die to make “God and sinners reconciled!” And He who received a man, Joseph, as His adoptive father, gives us His Father, God, as our adoptive Father! [What a great exchange!] And we join in our Christmas carols to sing with Simeon just as he did, of being set free by this Child from the fear of sin, death, and the devil, and receiving the peace of God, in the Spirit-filled words of Paul Gerhardt: “Oh, the joy beyond expressing / When by faith we grasp this blessing, And to You we come confessing / That Your love has set us free.” Go be a Simeon! Be an Anna! Go tell others of the redemption and consolation, the peace and freedom, God gives you in His dear Child, Jesus, the Christ. And the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
keep your hearts and minds in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.