While they are not in my nativity set, there are two other characters that appear in Jesus’ birth stories who also draw our attention away from the expected.
As mentioned earlier, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to the Temple eight days after his birth to make the sacrifice of the two birds. On their way into the Temple they are approached by two people, Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38).
Simeon, Luke tells us, had a special connection with the Holy Spirit who urged him to go to the Temple that day to see the Messiah. God had promised Simeon he would live to see him.
Anna also had a special connection to God. She had been camped out in the Temple courtyard for years where she fasted and prayed 24-7.
Can I hold the baby?
Picture the scene. A young couple carrying their first child walks up the Temple steps intent on doing what is required of them as people of faith. Simeon, a complete stranger, approaches and asks to hold their one-week-old newborn.
I am reminded of trips to the grocery store in the early days of my son’s life. There were times when it seemed like everyone wanted to touch him and hold him. As new parents we were leery and, quite frankly, never wanted to let go of him ourselves. There’s no way to complete a background check in the produce section.
If a complete stranger would have approached my wife and me the way Simeon approached Mary and Joseph, I doubt our first thought would have been, “This must be a guy completely in touch with the Holy Spirit who will share with us a word from God about our child.”
Reluctantly, at least I assume they were reluctant, Mary and Joseph hand baby Jesus over and hear Simeon’s prophecy. This child will bless everyone, the old man says, both Jew and Gentile.
Past him, probably shaking their heads trying to get a handle on what just happened, they meet Anna. She too wants to fawn over the baby. New parents get used to this eventually.
Anna is the daughter of Penuel of the tribe of Asher. Penuel literally means “face of God.” It’s the name Jacob gives the place he spent the night wrestling with God, the night he is renamed Israel (Genesis 32:22-30).
Like Simeon, Anna prophesies about the baby Jesus. She says he will bring redemption to Jerusalem.
Finally, through the gauntlet of prophets, the young family finally arrives at the Temple to complete, in Luke’s words, what the Law required of them.
Luke’s description of what they went there to do is relegated to a transitional clause before they return home. He doesn’t tell us about the priest that performs the purification ritual for Mary. There’s not mention of the mohel who performs Jesus’ circumcision. Those rituals were so well known to the original audience, they may have needed no further explanation.
The lack of detail we’re given about the official ritual, contrasts with all Luke tells us about Simeon and Anna. All of the action happens outside the Temple, outside the ritual, outside where one would expect the God-stuff to happen.
A story from the outside
Then again, this entire Christmas story seems to have this just-outside-the-expected quality to it. Jesus is born outside the house in a town just outside of Jerusalem. His parents who were trying to be devout, but struggled. He was visited by shepherds and magi, not priests and prophets. To cap it off, he was blessed in the Temple courtyard by two zealots, blessings that were more noteworthy than the one he received in the Temple from the authorities.
“Outsiders”—imperfect people like you and me—are everywhere in this story. They are people who want to do the right thing and sometimes fail, who could probably pray more, trust more, go to church a little more, and read their Bibles more. Maybe instead of outsiders we should just call them ordinary.
This is central to the Gospel. God has come in Jesus to and for the ordinary.
Christmas is for you. Christmas is for me. Christmas is a sign of the extraordinary God indwelling ordinary flesh and blood. This is what theologians mean by incarnation. God has come as us for us. God entered the ordinary so the ordinary would know they are included.
Christmas is for you.