When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
One More Song to Sing: Luke 2:22-40
I've been trying to remember when I first heard Christmas songs come on the radio this year. One of the radio stations that I listen to switched over way back in November, just a few days before Thanksgiving. While many of the stores seemed to have Christmas decorations out sometime in October, I don't actually remember hearing "Jingle Bells" while I was buying juice or having lunch until sometime in December. Now, that Christmas Day has passed, and stores no longer need to remind us of the impending need to buy things to amuse our families, I imagine that I will hear far fewer secular Christmas songs as I go about my business. Apparently, businesses are less concerned about our ongoing religious Christmas season, a season that lasts through January 6th, than they are about making sure they sell plenty of Christmas presents for us right up until Christmas Day. Once the profit motive is gone, the need to pretend to be festive is gone, too. But, here, in our religious community, profit is not our primary concern. Praise is. So we get to keep singing Christmas songs for at least a couple more weeks.
Did you know that Christmas songs were once not all that common in Christian churches, or at least English speaking ones? I read an article this week by a journalist named Nathan Heller. He reported that, though there were birth of Christ hymns sung as early as the second century CE, it wasn't until the fourth century, when December 25th was officially identified as a religious feast day, that Christians actually began writing Christmas songs in earnest. The trouble was that these first songs don't sound like they were particularly festive. Most were in Latin, a language that many Christians did not speak, and, according to Heller, some were basically theology arguments set to music. There is at least some evidence that these songs, while approved by the church, were not enjoyed by the people.
Heller argues that it took the great and strange St. Francis of Assisi to make Christmas songs and services into rich, enjoyable worship traditions. In the 13th Century, St. Francis staged nativity pageants with real barn things, like animals and hay. During these nativity pageants, the people were also treated to wonderful music. This music helped tell the story of Jesus' birth, something that was important since most people couldn't read. Importantly, this music was in the native language of the people who attended the services. Even though the songs were new, the tunes might have been familiar to the people because Francis and his followers took common drinking songs and changed the lyrics to tell Bible stories. Traveling musicians would then carry the new songs from town to town, spreading what could finally be called Christmas cheer.
Apparently, for at least a couple hundred years, many Christians had culturally-appropriate, theologically rich Christmas music to sing. Then, the Reformations happened. Even though Martin Luther liked the people's hymns, according to Heller, not all of his followers did. And, in England and the Massachusetts Bay Colony, our own religious forbearers, the Puritans, were quite sure that Christmas music and Christmas revelry had no place is a Christian home. In 1647, when the Puritans in England found themselves having some political clout under the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the Parliament made celebrating Christmas illegal. Heller notes that even here in North America, for at least a period of time, people found celebrating Christmas in the Massachusetts Bay Colony could be fined. That means that Christian people here in Maine could have been fined by their Christian government for celebrating the Christian holiday of Christmas. Now, that's what I call a war on Christmas.
It wasn't until the mid-1800's that English-speaking nations recaptured some public celebrations of Christmas. Heller credits the publication of two Christmas songbooks in 1822 and 1833 with reintroducing English Christians to Christmas hymns, including "The First Nowell" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing." Then, the British Queen married a German prince, who brought with him a rich Christmas celebratory tradition. According to Heller, Charles Dickens even got in on the act, writing A Christmas Carol in order to counter some of the cultural grimness around the Christmas season. Much of our own American Christmas tradition is an outgrowth of the traditions reinvigorated during the Victorian era. Thank goodness for Prince Albert and a couple of music historians. They helped give us back our music.
We are fortunate to have recovered this part of Christian tradition. St. Francis and Prince Albert seemed to know that singing of Christ's birth helps connect us to the story in a way that simply reading it and preaching it don't. There is something joyful and powerful in singing. It reminds that we are not alone. It connects us to our emotions as well as to the ancient traditions that have brought us to this place. Even the author of Luke knew that. I think that why he put four different songs in the story of Jesus' birth. We've already heard about three of them. We have heard Zechariah's joyous response to God's promise of a son. We have sung along with Mary, singing of a radical God who will bring justice to the poor and downtrodden. We have sung with angels, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those God favors," showing the shepherds that they have nothing to fear, and only a Messiah to gain if they travel to Bethlehem.
Today, we have the fourth song in Luke's cantata, the song of Simeon, the wise and aged man who only had to look into the eyes of young Jesus to know that he had seen the Messiah. Mary and Joseph had not expected such a reception at the temple. They were simply following religious custom. Each family was to bring their first born son to the temple to be dedicated to the Lord in a special way. Mary and Joseph had been promised that their son would be particularly special, but they did not assume that others would know this yet. But, Simeon, promised by God that he would not die before he saw the Messiah, felt led to go the temple the very same day that Mary and Joseph took Jesus. He held that baby boy and he sang these words: "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
Can you imagine seeing a tiny baby and knowing that, now, all people, not just the people with whom you share a religion, would have a hopeful future? That is what Simeon felt when he saw Jesus. He knew it in his bones that this child would change the world. He could not help but sing. He also knew that all of this change would not be easy. He warned Mary and Joseph that their own souls would be pierced by the calling that their child would live out. Just as he finished, a second wise voice would ring out. A prophet named Anna must have seen the little family and Simeon. She, too, knew that this child would save God's people. She, too, began to praise God and tell everyone she saw that God had done what God had promised, and would redeem Israel. Singing is one important way that they spoke of God.
Singing seems second nature to these figures in the Bible, so much so that they would have likely found a song-less religious celebration to be unthinkable. Had they known us during the times when we didn't sing, I can imagine that they would have shaken their heads, knowing that we were certainly losing something of Christ's story because we were not able to sing about it. Sure, we can speak of mercy and justice and salvation. But, I think they would argue, do we really know what those things are if we do not sing them? In honor of Anna, Simeon, Mary, Zechariah, and the very angels of Heaven, we should sing loudly the songs of Christ, praying that these melodies teach us something new about God's reign of love and justice. When you came in to worship, you received a paper. Write down what songs make you think of Christ's work in this world. Place them in the offering plate. We will sing these songs throughout Christmastide. They will bring us joy and help us be brave. They will remind of Jesus and the work we do with him. This season, let us be like Francis and Albert and Mary and Simeon. Let us not be afraid to sing. It helps us learn more about our God.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Stephen Hultgren: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2258
Holly Hearon: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=207
Audrey West: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=460
Nathan Heller, "Christmas Carols: Why Do We Keep Singing them?"
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.