Twelve Days of Christmas: Day 7

Simeon and Anna
Watching the Temple Precincts

Excerpted from Rubel Shelly, What Child Is This? (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Company, 1996).

The birth of a child was typically a festive occasion in Israel. In connection with the birth of boys in particular, family friends and guests would often gather every night for seven days to celebrate what became known as "son's week." Then, on the eighth day, there would be a celebration with feasting in connection with the circumcision of the baby.

The covenant of circumcision traces to Abraham. When the Father of the Faithful was ninety-nine years old, Yahweh made an "everlasting covenant" with him and his descendants that involved multiplying his offspring, giving them a special land to possess, and their being the nation through whom Messiah would come. The sign of that covenant was the circumcision of every male born to Abraham's offspring. "For the generations to come," he was told, "every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised" (Gen. 12:1-14).

Whereas several cultures practice circumcision as a puberty rite to signify status as an adult, the nation of Israel was charged to practice it as a sign of covenant commitment and personal consecration to Yahweh. As with every symbolic act among the Jews, the blood associated with the rite was especially meaningful. It pointed to the costliness of responding to the divine call. One who has been called to covenant relationship with the Lord has accepted a demand that involves his blood, his life, his total being.

Joseph and Mary received their son with great personal rejoicing. Scripture always regards Jesus as Joseph's son as well as Mary's, though it is understood always that he is the son of Joseph by law and custom rather than by conception. The happy parents shared their joy with the shepherds sent to them on the night of his birth. What happened during the remainder of the week following the birth of Jesus, we do not know.

Since the birth of the child meant that additional time would have to be spent at Bethlehem, some of that week would have been spent in finding better lodgings for the family. Perhaps there was time for Joseph to find kinspeople in the town with whom to share a son's week. Perhaps they spent the week together in private contemplation of all that had happened. Perhaps the shepherds returned again and again with people of their own kind who either believed or wanted to see for themselves what had been reported about this family from Nazareth. Perhaps God sent other people, as he had sent shepherds first, to see the baby during his first week of life. Scripture is silent about the events from the night of his birth until the eighth day following it.

Devout as they were, Joseph and Mary had known that their son would be circumcised at the appropriate time. So, on the eighth day, the operation was done.

The custom was that the time of a boy's circumcision was the time of giving his name formally. So, just as John had been named by Zechariah and Elizabeth on the eighth day following his birth (Luke 2:59-66), Jesus was named on the eighth day of his life. Joseph and Mary watched as a Levite-surgeon who was a stranger to them performed the operation. Then Joseph stepped forward to speak the name that had been given by the angel before the child had been conceived. He may have used the same words in speaking to those present that the angel had used to him: "You are to give him the name Jesus."

The Law of Moses required that firstborn sons be redeemed and that mothers be purified after childbirth. Ideally, both these rites were to take place at the temple in Jerusalem. Thus, sometime before the one-month anniversary of the birth of Jesus, the little family completed its registration with the Bethlehem census officials and made a six-mile journey to Jerusalem.

On the night of the last plague before the exodus, the firstborn sons of the Egyptians had died. By virtue of the slaying of a passover lamb and the placing of its blood around the doors of the homes of the Israelites, their firstborn sons were spared. On that night Yahweh commanded: "Redeem every firstborn among your sons" (Ex. 13:13b). Later, in giving the details of this procedure through Moses, he said, "When they are a month old, you must redeem them at the redemption price set at five shekels of silver" (Num. 18:16a).

Because of the sacredness of blood in the Mosaic system, women had to undergo a ceremony of purification forty days after the birth of a son or seventy-three days after the birth of a daughter. The mother was under obligation to offer a lamb in sacrifice or, if she was too poor to bring a lamb, two doves or two young pigeons (Lev. 12:6-8).

And so it was that Joseph and Mary came to be in Jerusalem with the baby. One can hardly imagine how they must have felt to be in the temple courts. Bringing with them the child who was born to be the Savior of his people from their sins, they must have walked the compound as many hours per day as Mary's strength would allow. They would alternately listen to a rabbi teach or join in times of prayer or watch various rituals being performed. All the while, they were carrying history's greatest secret in their hearts. Neither priests nor Levites nor worshippers such as themselves had reason to know the identity of their son.

Or did someone there know? God had revealed it to shepherds at Bethlehem, hadn't he? Surely the idea crossed their minds at some point that it may have been -- or might yet be -- made known to someone at Jerusalem. They received polite smiles from people who saw them with their baby. Some may have asked to see him, to know his age, or to hear his name. Then, at some point in their stay at Jerusalem, they encountered Simeon and Anna.

Simeon was a righteous and devout man who was awaiting the arrival of Israel's Messiah and the consolation he would bring to Yahweh's people. More than that, he had been given a prophetic word from the Holy Spirit that he would see the Lord's Christ before he died.

One morning Simeon felt a distinct and clear prompting to go to the temple courts. Without resisting the Spirit of God, he went there without knowing what was to happen. Then a couple carrying a baby caught his eye.

Joseph and Mary were making their way toward the area where sons were presented before the Lord and redeemed with five shekels given to the priests. Although it must have represented a large percentage of their total estate -- for later they would not have the thirty shekels needed to buy a lamb for Mary's purification and would offer the sacrifice of the poor, two birds -- it would have never crossed their minds to begrudge the money.

As they walked with a solemnity appropriate to their purpose for being there, Joseph and Mary were startled by Simeon. Yet, in view of the things that had happened in their lives of late, they did not resist him.

Moved both to act and to speak by the Holy Spirit, Simeon took the baby Jesus into his own arms. He spoke with a spirit of prophecy and said:

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.

Joseph and Mary marveled at what he said. Yes, they knew already that Jesus was destined to be the Savior. But he was to be the redeemer of Gentiles as well as of Israel?

They had no time to think now about what meaning the man's opening words to them might carry, for he was speaking still. He was not speaking of the baby now, but to them. He blessed them both. Then he turned to Mary and said, "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed" (Luke 2:34-35).

Their minds struggled to keep pace with what he was saying. Yes, the presence of God's salvation would surely reveal the hearts of men. Those who loved the Lord and were eager to receive his salvation would welcome this child, as Simeon had done. His presence would bring people to a point of decision.

But Simeon may have introduced a new dimension to the growing knowledge Joseph and Mary had of the fate of this child. His presence would be a sign "spoken against"? Would he suffer hostility at the hands of the enemies of God? Would unbelievers not only reject him but actively oppose him? Would he in any sense be vulnerable before those destined to fall in Israel because of his appearing?

Then Mary heard Simeon's final words: "And a sword will pierce your own soul too." Mary's heart had already been broken by some people at Nazareth: their whispered gossip, their treatment of Joseph. Was there something even worse ahead?

Then, with her mother's heart, she realized that it would be more painful to see her son mistreated than to suffer mistreatment herself. But what would that cruel treatment of her son involve? Verbal abuse? Simeon had said a "sword" would pierce her soul. Her soul also. Would she and her son be pursued by violent people? Would the two of them die at the hands of evil men? Was that the meaning of Simeon's prophecy? She would willingly die for her son. That he should have to die on her account was unthinkable! No, let others die for him. But don't let him have to die for others!

At the same moment Simeon was speaking, a fifth person joined the group and also began to speak. The woman was Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. Eighty-four years old now, she spent every day in the temple precincts. Fasting and praying constantly, she also had the gift of prophecy. Hearing Simeon's identification of this child as the promised salvation from above, she confirmed it with her own prophetic power. She praised God for the child. Afterward she spoke about the baby she had seen to the many other devout people she knew who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem as a center for true worship to the Lord (Luke 2:36-38).

Unlike the shepherds who were going about the routine of their lives only to have God break in unexpectedly, Simeon and Anna represent that host of people in every generation who are looking for God in what one naturally takes to be the most likely of places only to find him in the most unlikely of persons. They hovered in the temple precincts, but they did not find God through the musicians, singers, Levites, or priests. They found him in a peasant-child who was brought there by his nondescript parents.

Because they were looking for God in sincerity and because of God's promise that he would appear to them, they recognized him when he came. And they received him with joy.

So does our world contain millions of devout people who are actively seeking to find God. Because they believe it is the place where God should be sought, they seek out churches. But most who ever find him there do not do so through musicians, preachers, or writers. They find him in the lives of humble people who are serving God without fanfare or notice. They are salt-of-the-earth people, light-of-the-world types. People who are cynical about preachers or suspicious about having their emotions manipulated by music cease to resist God's presence in their lives when one person notices, cares, and models the truth of God before them.

God is faithful. The person who wills to know the truth will not have it hidden from him. That devout, seeking heart will be satisfied. But the satisfaction may come through the person others would least expect.

That person may be the one who has loved you enough to listen, phone you last week, or remind you of Christ's forgiving nature when you were mad at someone yesterday. Maybe it was the one who wrote a note of encouragement. Perhaps it was the one who walked up beside you last Sunday, hugged you, and said, "I'm glad you're here today. I was looking for you."

Or, just perhaps, you may be that person for someone else today.

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