What, I wonder have been the favourite moments of each of us this Christmas? For me, I think it was the telephone call we shared with my father. Now in his late 80s, he is essentially housebound, looking after my mother, of similar age. She is bedbound, wholly dependent on skilled carers coming in several times a day, and increasingly deaf. Immobile as they are, and living in a north midlands rural community, they are eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine now being gradually rolled out in the UK’s desperate viral battle. However, as they cannot leave the house to go to the nearest hospital, they cannot have the vaccine now and remain vulnerable on that score. Among various worrying ailements, my father also has regular falls in the house, the latest bringing fresh staples inserted into his head. Fortunately my sister and brother live not too far away and are able to visit, as family ‘shielding’ Covid-19 vulnerable relatives. This Christmas however, hardly anyone was able to visit, due to the rising levels of UK lockdown. So our Christmas Day ‘phone call this year was particularly special.
The best moment of the ‘phone call was undoubtedly the interchange between my father, the oldest in all of our families, and Kiera, the youngest. What a gorgeous contact for both! Kiera, being so young, will probably not remember it, but even she could tell there was something extraordinary going on. She was fascinated by my father’s very voice, and the spirit of profound connection was palpable. On Kiera’s part, her gentle excited bubbling was such a delight – one so easily felt, and so powerfully, across the great physical distance.
Now sometimes Gospel stories come alive in our midst, don’t they? Actually this happens so much more often than we tend to realise. For Christ is truly born again, present and transforming, living, dying and rising again, in and around us – if we would but open our eyes and ears, like a little child does, to see and hear. For me, our special Christmas moment with my father was like the Gospel encounter between Simeon and Anna and the holy family of Jesus: the great biblical divine encounter of elders and child.
What do you see and hear in today’s Gospel story, I wonder? For me, in Simeon and Anna, I see the resilience of my father and mother, and of so many other elders among us. Such generations of people have been through so many things: including world war and other conflicts; rationing; nuclear threats; and profound changes in society, economics, technology and culture – and now, as frontline targets, they endure the global health pandemic. They are truly remarkable, aren’t they? No generation in history has experienced so much, faced so much, and continued to share love with, and in, the future. For that is what the encounter of the elders Anna and Simeon with the little child symbolises: the meeting of resilience and joy; of those who never, ever gave up and never could, with the promise, born again, of true hope and new life.
Today’s Gospel story therefore encourages us in two main ways. Firstly it invites us to affirm once more the resilience of God’s people where they/we place their/our faith in those things which endure, even when they/we may never see those things come to fulfilment in their/our own times and places. Simeon and Anna, like the great elders we know, are such powerful models to us in this. Waiting on God, so long and so deeply, what gifts they are – aren’t they? – for our Covid-19 world!
Secondly, and even more wonderfully, today’s Gospel story invites us to be open to the joy which is, even now, potentially springing up for us, in surprising places – not least in the ‘little ones’ of our world, the literal and spiritual children of our lives. Now, like Anna and Simeon, and like my father too as it happens, we must be clear-eyed about these realities. The gift of the Christ child in our own lives is not a sentimental thing. It does not mean the end of all struggle and pain in this world. As the prophet Simeon sagely foresaw in Jesus, there is challenge in the fulfilled promise of God’s new life: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against… that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”
The glimpses of God’s love we receive do not keep us from such struggles in our own lives. Yet, through continuing and fresh manifestations of the cross, resurrection joy will always shine.
Now, I’m not entirely happy with what Simeon also says about now being free to let go into God’s grace in death – at least in indicating such strong parallels with my own father’s story, and that of other amazing elders I know. I hope that they will continue to be with us, with God, in the present and foreseeable future! Yet those words of Simeon are ones – aren’t they? - for us all to hold close to our heart and on our lips from time to time. The experience of the joys of divine encounter and loving relationship we have should set us free. We too, like Anna and Simeon, are called to faithful resilience, to know God’s joy, and also to be open, always, to coming home to God in all things, even death. So can we too learn to say, with them: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.”
That canticle is such a gorgeous expression of the love which brings together grandparents and other elders in joy at seeing the beginnings of the new. It is such a hopeful encouragement to resilience, and such a beautiful gift for helping us all ‘let go, and let God’.
Let me end with a final word regarding Errol, whom we farewell today as our fabulous and faithful organist for so many years. Errol, thankyou! – thankyou for your gifts, thank you for being you, and thankyou for embodying what we see and rejoice in Simeon and Anna, and all other great elders of faith: resilience, joy and life beyond all we can now imagine.
In the Name of the Christ child who brings embodied love, Amen.
by Josephine Inkpin, for the Sunday after Christmas, 27 December 2020
photo: by Jan van t' Hoff - see and learn more at gospelimages.com