Monday, December 07, 2009

Advent Reflections on Simeon: Cradling Salvation

Simeon took him in his arms and praised God . . . (Luke 2:28)

In the churches that introduced me to Jesus and nurtured my faith, Baptism was a sloppy affair. You had to change your clothes, put on a white robe, hold your nose and allow the pastor to lower you backwards all the way under, at least until the water completely covered your face. That kind of baptism demonstrated real faith – not only in Jesus as Lord and Savior, but in the person who held you and lowered you into the “watery grave.”

I love immersion baptism – the kind where the water doesn’t go on you; you go in the water. When I met with the Presbytery’s committee on ministry in order to become a card-carrying Presby Pastor, they questioned me about some of my reservations about leaving the tradition that had shaped my faith and educated me for ministry. I only had one: “You people don’t use enough water,” I said. They laughed. “How much does it take,” one of them replied.

Let me hasten to add that I love infant baptism too. I’ll confess that I’m probably not able to articulate the most cogent and compelling argument for why we baptize babies. Focus on the word “baptism” in infant baptism and you can end up mired in some thorny theological and biblical questions.

What draws me to infant baptism isn’t the word “baptism.” Rather, it’s the word “infant.” Sure, the act or “sacrament” of infant baptism says something profound about the nature of God’s grace. But on a far more practical level, there’s something very special about holding someone else’s baby and speaking blessing over that child.

Some babies don’t like to be held by the pastor. Some parents bring young ones for baptism who are well beyond infancy and can actually run from you (I’ve had that happen). But some sleep in your arms and still others look at you like they understand clearly every word you’re saying as you name Father, Son and Holy Spirit over them.

It is a great privilege, a sacred moment, when parents place their child in your arms for a word of blessing.

This is the moment of the Simeon story that holds my attention today. Luke narrates the scene in a terse sentence or two. Mary and Joseph arrive at the Temple to present their son, and the next thing we know Simeon has the child in his arms, praising God with prayerful song.

The story of Simeon is always told at or near the Christmas season. It is numbered among the biblical texts that we associate with the birth of Jesus. But among these nativity stories, Simeon is the only one who actually takes the infant into his arms. His song gives thanks to God that “my eyes have seen your salvation.” But Simeon doesn’t merely see salvation. He cradles it, holds it close, pulls it to himself in an intimate act of worship.

The Shepherds rushed to the stable to “see this thing that has happened.” As best we can tell, their encounter with Jesus was one of seeing and beholding. The magi also journeyed to find the child. Their worship was expressed in the bringing of gifts. There are angels who sing and animals who witness the event. Even in the temple that day the elderly Anna gave thanks to God and spoke of the child (the first woman preacher). But Simeon takes the baby into his arms.

In these days of Advent Simeon’s example invites us to ponder our own response to the birth of Jesus and the salvation accomplished through him. Specifically, we are invited to be more than spectators and observers. We are challenged to do more than give gifts. We are reminded that Christmas can mean more than speaking about Jesus’ birth.

God’s saving work through Jesus is meant to be embraced. As Simeon’s words make clear, this salvation is being prepared in the sight of all people – but many people at Christmas are simply too busy too embrace it. Some find it too familiar. They talk about it, they watch the story from their pew, but have yet to take the Christ into their arms and cradle the God’s work of salvation as their own.

How will you encounter the Christ child this year? Have you embraced God’s saving work as your own?

We give you thanks, O God, for your saving work in Jesus Christ. We marvel that this work is for all nations, prepared in the sight of all people. Knowing that we cannot share what we do not possess ourselves, we will embrace this salvation and hold it close. Change us and save us – and empower us to share the good news of salvation with the world. Amen.

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