In the fall of 2006, my colleague Rev. Nancy Swanson was serving as interim pastor at a church in St. Paul. The church had many older members, and very few young families. In fact, there were not enough children in the congregation to stage even a very simple Christmas pageant. And the people were feeling the disappointment keenly.
Pastor Nancy decided to have a Christmas pageant—but instead of focusing on the story of the Holy Family and the birth of Jesus, she wrote a pageant that celebrated the elders who are part of the story—but often left in the background and ignored. With her permission, we staged her pageant one year in Northfield. Even though we had plenty of children, there was something powerful about claiming the story of the elders as well as of the youth.
I have often returned to these stories, the ones that we heard this morning—the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the stories of Simeon and Anna. Each of them pulls the narrative away from Nazareth, away from Bethlehem, away from the shepherd’s fields, away from the mysterious Eastern strangers—pulls us away from all of that and puts us, instead, into the Temple, the center of Jewish religious life.
If we look at the Christmas story—for just a moment—as a series of symbols rather than a series of events, we get hints of the themes that will unfold in the life and ministry of Jesus. The journey to Bethlehem reminds us of David, the great king of Israel. The gathering of angel voices assures us that what is taking place is divinely inspired. And the first words of the angels, “Fear not,” are the trademark of angels all through the bible. The shepherds are examples of people on the margins, depended upon but not respected. The essential workers of their time. The mysterious visitors from the East brought the first Gentiles into the story of Jesus. And their curious gifts spoke of a complex life that was just beginning. In that same frame of mind, the stories of the elders also take on symbolic meaning, because they anchor the events in the Temple. Their presence, and their long lives of faithful living and religious practice, remind us that being Jewish was central to who Jesus was, and that the community of faithful people around him supported him in that.
Returning, then, to the events of the story, let’s notice that these four elders were faithful and devout—in fact, they remind me of some of the members of this congregation.
Think about Zechariah, for example. He was a priest, going about his duties in the Temple, when he was visited by the angel Gabriel. Zechariah was frightened, and he did what many of us do when we are afraid—he doubted what he had just heard. The text says that Gabriel muted him, but in some sense, it was his own doubt that kept him from talking. Some of us have trouble speaking through our own doubts.
We don’t know how his wife Elizabeth responded to his silence, but do know that she became pregnant. During her pregnancy she was visited by Mary (this was a part of the story we didn’t hear today), and the two women greeted each other with joy and with recognition of the remarkable children they were carrying. We know carriers of joy and celebration among us.
Simeon was what we might call a “layman.” According to the text in Luke, he was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him.” The Consolation of Israel was to be the Messiah, the chosen one. And Simeon was told by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until the Messiah had arrived. Again in the words of the Gospel of Luke, “Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple.” Taking the infant from his parents, he offered his fervent prayer and blessing. We can look around and see faithful people who are guided by the Spirit. (Simeon also offered a darker blessing to Mary and Joseph, and that is a story for another day.)
We hear very little about Anna, except that she is from the tribe of Asher and the descendant of the priest Phanuel. We are told that she has long been a widow, and that she has spent her time in the Temple, fasting and praying. She, too, recognized the infant Jesus, offered words of blessing, and she spoke about the child to “all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (That is, the return of Jerusalem to Jewish control instead of the Roman Empire.) We are grateful today for our friends in Christ who are working for the redemption of ourcities.
During Advent, we are often reminded that life in the first century was not easy. The Roman Empire occupied Judea, and ruled with a stern and often cruel hand. Taxes were high and corruption was widespread. On a personal level, Elizabeth had been without children in a culture that saw barrenness as a sign of God’s disapproval or anger. Anna had been married only seven years before her husband died, which left her in a socially and economically fragile place.
We do not have to be reminded that life in the 21st century is not easy, either. Like our ancestors in the faith, we are living with an Empire that is often stern and sometimes cruel, we are shuffling through a pandemic that frightens and scatters us, and we are facing the truth about the racism that always been part of our nation.
We do, perhaps, need to be reminded that our present situation calls for the voices and blessings of elders, as well as for the energy and idealism of youth and the skill and discipline of adults. We need people who see angels—and we need people who are skeptical about angels. We need people who do not lose hope, even when dreams take a long time to come true. We need people who are convinced that God’s presence is about to break into the world—and who recognize it when it happens. We need people who can see the future in the face of an infant, and spread that word to everyone.
It is easier for me to see the virtues and contributions of elders now than it was before I became one. It still surprises me, sometimes. In fact, I have something of a confession to make.
Some of you know that before I went to seminary and became a minister, I was a research psychologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Most of my work was with parent-child interaction in families with infants and toddlers. But in the early 1980s my colleague and dear friend Helen Bee invited me to join her in writing a college textbook on human development through the lifespan. Truthfully, we didn’t know very much about development after early adulthood—but we did know where the library was and we were confident we could find the information we needed.
I wrote the chapter about physical development and health in adulthood. Most of the research was about physiological changes, which I summarized with these words: “smaller, slower, weaker, and fewer.” I can forgive myself for the harshness of those words when I remember that (a) I was in my 30s and good health, and (b) I was writing for college students in their late teens, who might appreciate the dark humor.
I would, of course, write differently about those developmental changes in adulthood if I had another chance.
Instead of “smaller” I would say “more compact”—being truer to oneself and having healthy and appropriate personal boundaries.
Instead of “slower,” I would say “modulated”—knowing that stepping off the fast track and dropping out of the rat race leave space for reflection and appreciation.
Instead of “weaker,” I would say “collaborative,”—recognizing physical limitations and learning the grace of receiving help as well as giving it.
Instead of “fewer,” I would say “curated”—choosing what is central and shedding what is no longer necessary.
Compact, modulated, collaborative, curated. Yes, that is my 74-year-old edit of my 34-year-old words. That’s how I hear these Biblical elders of ours.
The words of both Zechariah and Simeon have found their way into Christian worship. The song of Zechariah is known as the “Benedictus,” and it is often sung during morning prayer. We will sing a version of the Benedictus in just a few moments. The song of Simeon is known as the “Nunc Dimittis,” which is Latin for the opening words, and it is often part of evening prayer. Our hymn “Lord, Dismiss Us with Your Blessing” (NCH #77) captures the spirit of this passage.
I can’t help wondering what a Christmas pageant would look like if it included Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna. I like to think of them sitting on the edge of the stage, watching the story unfold, and quietly offering their words of doubt and faith, of blessing and praise. I think their presence would make the story better. Amen.