First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Christmas 1

William Loader

Christmas 1: 28 December Luke 2:21(22)-40

I include v. 21 which belongs appropriately to the passage. After the magic of the first half of chapter 2 we find ourselves back at the level of practicalities in Luke 2:21-40, at least to begin with. Like his cousin, John (1:59), Jesus is circumcised on the 8th day and, like his cousin, John, Jesus is named on that day. Luke deliberately sets both in parallel. According to popular etymology, Jesus meant ‘Yahweh is salvation’. Jesus’ family showed a preference for using names from the ancient epics of Israel, such as James (Jacob), Joses (Joseph), Jude (Judah), Simeon, and here Jesus (Joshua). The family was not very ‘trendy’ – it appears to have avoided fashionable Hellenistic names like Andrew or Jason (a common equivalent for Joshua). Luke probably assumes many hearers will know the etymology. Salvation will return as a key theme in the latter part of the chapter, as it was in the words of the angels to the shepherds: ‘To you is born ..a saviour’ (2:11).

In 22-24 Luke keeps us focused on practicalities. They are the practicalities of the Law. Mary had given birth to a male child. She was, according to Leviticus 12:2-4, unclean for 33 days. Luke, somewhat inaccurately, writes of ‘their’ purification, as though the impurity extended beyond the woman to the man. Are they being portrayed as especially observant, super-observant? This may be reflected in their going up to the temple, which was not required for the purification, but only for the offering in relation to the firstborn (Numbers 18:15-16). In relation to the latter Luke fails to mention the payment of 5 shekels. The offering of the pair of birds reflects the option for the poor, who could not afford a sheep (Leviticus 12:8).

This cluster of practical legalities in 21-24 has its purpose for Luke. That purpose is reflected in the refrain, ‘in accordance with the law of Moses’ (v. 22), ‘according to what is written in the law of the Lord’ (v. 24); and a few verses later, lest we forget: ‘according to the custom of the law’ (v. 27) and finally ‘When they had completed everything in accordance with the law of the Lord’ (v.40). There can be no missing the fact. Not only the names, but also the practices of Jesus’ family demonstrate that they are devout followers of Torah. They are the best of true Israel, as also was John’s family.

Luke is concerned with continuity. Christians are not another religion. They are the true successors, according to Luke, of biblical faith and nothing of that Bible is to be discarded, unless divine intervention indicates this is so (as in the waiving of circumcision in Acts – but only for Gentiles). This reflects Luke’s view that Jesus intended to set aside not a single stroke of the Law and the Prophets (Luke 16:17). Jews remain observant Jews when they become Christians. Paul is the supreme example, as he is portrayed in Acts (see 21:21; somewhat differently from in real life). Luke inherits this theology from Q; it is reflected also in Matthew (see: 5:17-20), but Luke makes much more of the fact that it required not just ethical but also ritual observance. New Testament writers had differing opinions about how to handle scripture, the law in particular. Mark could even have Jesus pour scorn on food laws and ritual washings (7:1-23); Paul could declare that both Jew and Gentile are no longer under the law; and for John such aspects retain symbolic value at most.

Notice how Luke continues this fairly conservative theme through the rest of the chapter. Simeon and Anna are true saints of Israel. Today we might not share Luke’s implied view that there was a special virtue in Anna’s remaining unmarried. But more to the point, they both moved and lived in the Spirit. They hail the child. They are prophets. They are also aged people; Luke reflects the honouring of wise elderly people. Probably frail and able to achieve little that counts on the scale of the economic rationalists, they are rich sources of wisdom. Congregations often have Simeons and Annas; are they heard?

Notice their focus. Simeon was ‘longing for the consolation of Israel’ (2:25). Anna speaks to ‘those who were awaiting the liberation of Israel’ (2:38). The same expression reappears in 23:51 and 24:21. Luke allows Simeon to continue the language of national liberation which is found also on the lips of Mary and Zechariah. For in Luke’s understanding of salvation, Israel’s liberation from oppression is not surrendered or spiritualised away to become a symbol of individual peace or a heavenly home. It remains on the divine agenda and is rather expanded so that ‘Your kingdom come’ means to pray for good news for the poor of every land (6:20-21). This is the ‘light which will enlighten the Gentiles’ (2:32). It is like Simeon is saying: through this child Israel will truly become a blessing to all nations, as once promised to Abraham. He also warns it will not be without opposition and conflict (rising, falling, swords – 2:34-35).

In v. 40 Luke returns to his parallel with John the Baptist, who also grew and became strong by the Spirit (1:80). The child, Jesus, became filled with wisdom (as the next scene will demonstrate) and ‘the grace of God was upon him’. The 30 years till adulthood leave room for wild speculation. Jesus visited India? Jesus visited Alexandria? Jesus spent time at Qumran? Jesus strolled on England’s green hills? It is better to remain with Luke’s eloquent silence. As Simeon and Anna grew old, nourished by the passions of hope and liberation, so this child grew as a child of his people’s hope, nurtured in a household devoted to taking scripture seriously, including cultural practices which are strange to us but were real to them. Luke wants us to be ‘on side’ with the cry of Jesus’ people, with the cries of people everywhere who long for liberation – big liberation which reaches from individual release to community justice and peace. Luke was not just indulging in fantasy when he has the angels sing of peace. As we begin the new year it remains just as urgent to imagine oneself into what for some is the stark reality where our living with more means their living with less - and then to act, but without pretending we can or should do it all.

Epistle: Christmas 1: 28 December Galatians 4:4-7

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