On the fourth Sunday of Advent the first reading contained a prophecy referring to the ruler who would come forth from Bethlehem-Ephrathah, “too small to be among the clans of Judah,” (Micah 5:1). That is, the clan from which this ruler would come would be the smallest of the small, residing in a town that was totally insignificant. When this foretold ruler did come into the world, this prophecy was fulfilled: Jesus was born to a humble carpenter, Joseph, and a woman of ordinary background, Mary, insignificant people in the eyes of the world. Even in preparation for His birth, Jesus’ parents were so unimportant and lowly that inns would not take them in despite Mary’s advanced pregnancy. No doubt, when Mary and Joseph rode through the streets of Bethlehem, no one had a clue who they were or who they were ushering into the world. They passed unnoticed until they found the stable where Jesus was born, a cave tucked away in a place more insignificant and obscure then Bethlehem itself. Angels, shepherds, and Magi found them, however, and the heavens resounded with “Glory to God in the Highest” as the sky blazed with the light of a star only outdone by the very light of the One to whom it pointed. And on the 8th day when all the sounds and sights had long since faded, the parents, unimportant in the eyes of the world, took that Child to the Temple to be circumcised and named according to Jewish Law. And it was there that the infant Jesus was recognized as the Messiah by two separate elderly prophets, Simeon and Anna. Jesus was recognized not through angelic fanfare or stars from Heaven, but rather, it came from within them because of the hopeful expectation and faith with which the hearts of these two people were filled.
We rightfully associate Advent with waiting, and yet ironically it is during the Christmas season that we encounter Simeon and Anna who are among the greatest of those who wait. For most of their long lives they remained in the Temple precinct praying in expectation that God would fulfill His promises. Luke’s Gospel (2:25-35) tells us that at some point in his life Simeon had been informed by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. In becoming so very aged, it would have been easy to lose hope in what he had come to believe, yet year after year Simeon waited and hoped, expecting that God would fulfill His promise. Perhaps he became so much a ‘fixture’ at the Temple that he became an unimportant figure, the kind that people take for granted, and perhaps do not take too seriously. And in the case of Anna, Luke states that now 84, she had been married for 7 years and then widowed. (Luke 2:36-38)* Widows were among the poorest of the poor, so we can infer that her constant presence in the Temple area worshiping and fasting means she was faithful, but also incredibly insignificant, as if invisible. Indeed, she was the most insignificant of the insignificant.
Insignificant as these two separate individuals were deemed, they were the first to recognize the tiny Baby carried by the poor Jewish couple who were at the Temple for His presentation to the priests in accordance with the Law.** What enabled Simeon and then Anna to recognize the Messiah in the midst of the seeming ordinariness of the Holy Family? It was their unwavering hope in the promise made by God. Hope is expectation fueled by belief and faith, the fruit of persistent prayer. Hope is not about expecting an outcome as if our power can make something happen, but rather hope is about humbly wading into the mystery of God’s designs; it is centered upon the power and wisdom of God which is imbued with mercy and love, and is way beyond our own. Hope becomes powerful in the humble acceptance of God as the one in whom we must totally rely: we believe because He said so. But this belief requires a radical openness to how He will accomplish what He has promised. That is, hope accepts the mystery of that which can come at any time, in any way God chooses. This was the hope to which Simeon and Anna adhered.
Simeon and Anna did not know that the Messiah would be revealed to them as a tiny, vulnerable baby born to two obscure people. For that matter, nowhere in the text does it indicate that they knew He was the Son of God! All they knew was that this child was the long-awaited, promised Messiah who would come to liberate their land, a land filled with God’s greatly suffering and oppressed people, and that was enough for them. Once they saw Jesus, they glorified God and could finally “depart in peace” with great joy. Their hope, their expectation and reliance upon God all those years, had been graced by the arrival of the Prince of Peace. From them we learn that in order to truly have hope, we must rely on the power of God and not upon ourselves. We also learn that even the least likely one might be a bearer of the Messiah, or perhaps is Emmanuel, the Messiah-in-our-midst, in His most distressing, surprising, or humble disguise (such as in a piece of bread and a cup of wine.) Perhaps Simeon and Anna can teach us to hope expectantly and to always keep our eyes and ears open for the coming of the Lord.
May we learn from Simeon and Anna to never cease hoping in the Lord! May we keep our eyes and ears open for the presence of Emmanuel each day! And may we offer welcoming hearts and open hands to all, especially the most seemingly insignificant of our neighbors! Let us meet in the hearts of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*It seems unlikely that someone would have lived to be 84 at that time. Life expectancy was so much shorter than it is today, and so if someone lived into their 50’s they were considered “elderly.” Hyperbole is probably what is being employed here; that is, exaggerating something in order to make a point. In this case the age of Anna seems to indicate advanced age and wisdom. (Remember that in ancient cultures age was synonymous with wisdom.)
**Luke 2:22 seems to indicate that Joseph and Mary were both to be purified in the Temple, but in reality, only the female would need purification in a ritual way since she had “an issue of blood” at the time of the birth and thus was impure according to Mosaic Law. (It is so hard for us to swallow in today’s society given the beauty of birth, but they did not live in sanitary times, so being considered impure in this situation actually does make some sense.) Obviously, the father of the child would not be in need of purification. Therefore, it was only Mary and Jesus who were there for rituals: Mary was to get the mikvah, or ritual milk bath, and Jesus was to be circumcised and named. Also, that Mary and Joseph were poor is emphasized by her offering for sacrifice: two turtledoves were the offering of those who could not afford a lamb. (See footnote to this verse in the NABRE Bible.)
1. Icon, Holy Family for the Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem by Fr. William Hart McNichols. If you are interested in obtaining a copy, go to https://fineartamerica.com/featured/the-holy-family-for-the-holy-family-hospital-of-bethlehem-william-hart-mcnichols.html
2. Fresco painting, Presentation of Jesus (1303-1310) by Giotto di Bondone, found in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. I want to point out that Mary is handing Jesus to Simeon to hold. Behind Mary (to the left) is Joseph and behind Simeon (to the right) is Anna.
3. My photo, the Gulf of Mexico in the twilight, Gulf Shores, Alabama.
4. Painting, Still Life with a Decanter by Camille Pissarro, (1830-1903). I chose this painting because it is an ordinary scene of bread and wine.
5. My photo, a Medallion of the Holy Family, taken in Nazareth, Israel.
Note: In compliance with GDPR rules, I wish to make it clear that I do not gather any information on any of my readers at any time.
Heart Speaks to Heart