By Rick Brand
Saturday, November 01, 1997
"What in the world are we going to do with those two old people? They are always here. They know more about what goes on in this place than anybody else, and yet they never seem satisfied. They go through the motions and they participate in the service, and yet it never seems to be enough. It is like they keep waiting for something special to happen. Yom Kippur isn't enough to cleanse their sins, they act like what they want is that burning coal on the lips like Isaiah. The choir sings magnificently and they are pleased but you still get the feeling the only think that would make them really happy is to hear the angels themselves sing. What is wrong with them? They just never seem to be satisfied with anything!"
Ah, so you have met Old Simeon and Anna. Nobody knows for sure how long either one of them has been here. Somebody has said that Anna has been here more than 84 years, but nobody knows if they are counting from when she became a widow or from when she became a woman. But they are harmless. They won't bother you any. Although I will confess that sometimes it does get to be a little unnerving to have them wandering around mumbling that stuff about longing and hoping for the consolation of Israel all the time. You and I could repeat old Anna's prayer ourselves because all she is ever talking about is praying for the coming of the redemption of God's people.
I used to resent them and the way they always were hanging around and sharing in the worship and then, is you suggest, kind of throwing a wet blanket on all of our successes. Just when we had one of the largest and best days in the temple, there would be Simeon and Anna still with that look in their eyes and that longing in their hearts for that something more that you and I would never be able to give them. And over the years it has slowly begun to dawn on me that they are best that all our devotion could produce.
You see that young family over there bringing that young boy here to be dedicated? If you were to ask them why they are bringing their child to the temple, they would tell you in order that He might grow up according to the Law, that he might be shaped and nurtured according to the traditions of God, that he might become one of the children of God, that he might have his life structured and sustained by the Word and Promises of God. They might not say it that way, but that is why they come and Old Simeon and Anna are the best the system produces.
You may find that hard to believe but the one thing that makes it so is the very thing that disturbs you the most. Old Simeon and Anna have lived all their lives waiting on the promise of God to bring about the redemption of His people. That one hope, that one vision, that one dream, has been the center of their entire lives. They have refused to settle for anything less. No matter how close it might have been, no matter how helpful it was, no matter how powerful it is, no matter who told them something, they have focused their lives on the coming of the consolation of Israel. They have been waiting the coming of God's act to bring His Kingdom on Earth.
The most remarkable thing about them is that they have been able to participate in the Temple, to be nurtured in the Torah, to be fed by the traditions and the prophets, to be immersed in the benefits of all that we as priest and prophets are able to do and yet still to know that nothing we have been able to do was enough to satisfy. You said it well, Nothing we ever do satisfies them, for nothing we do is God's act to bring in His kingdom. All we are ever doing is preparing, bearing witness to, pointing in that direction.
But they have never rejected the Torah, the Temple, the liturgy, the prophets. They have had that wisdom to be able to see through all that we do without rejecting what we do, because somehow they know that every miracle needs some kind of support system, every moment of ecstasy has to have some kind of routine way of expression, the way the great passion of love has to have an ordinary kind of marriage ceremony to express it. Old Simeon and Anna have been able to know that there was so much that the temple, the rituals, and the routine can do, but only so much and yet they have not rejected us because we could not do everything.
In your brief career as priest surely you have seen those who come to the Temple expecting all of our rituals and Law and prophets to give them God, to put God in their mouth, to make things right with God and when they discover that all we can ever do is point them in a direction, we can clear away some trash that gets in the way, we can show them where and how God has been at work in the past so that they might be prepared to see Him in the future when they discover that is all we can do, they drop out and quit. Simeon and Anna never quit. And yet never in all their years were they willing to settle for what they could have. They have lived always awaiting, looking longing for that moment when God moves in their lives.
Don't you know lawyers who are out there who once had a great passion for justice, for truth, for doing the right, who over and over again discover that the law could not and did not give justice, truth or the right. That all the law could ever give was some poorly worked out compromises between self-interests.
Slowly they gave up that passion for justice, and decided to settle for the law and now all they do is offer to be the best legal adviser around. They no longer are alive with a flame of righteousness, they have settled for being legally correct. Why hold out for justice when you know you will never be able to achieve it? Why not simply settle for what can be done and do what is legal?
Doctors, who began with a great passion for helping and healing and giving life, and life more abundant, have discovered that all the science they know can really only give longevity to body functions and so they have made that their passion. They just keep people alive as long as possible without much regard to life. Teachers, who began excited about learning, curiosity, and sharing, slowly realized that what they wanted to do couldn't be done in the context of where they teach so they settle for presenting the information and keeping discipline and even that is not easy.
Old Simeon and Anna are the best our religion can produce because they have not rejected the ritual, the temple, the Torah because it could not give them what they wanted and they have never compromised and agreed to settle for only what the system could offer. They have found that worship and the temple were able to keep alive and burning in them the deep flame of expectancy. The Law did not fulfill that hope, but it did keep that flame alive, and they refuse to accept and be contented with any second best. They would not abandon the hope for the best to be satisfied with something less.
It has taken me a long time to realize it but Old Simeon and Anna are the finest example of our Jewish piety. They are awake to, eager for, zealous for the coming of God's truth, God's peace, God's justice, gifts which no human effort can achieve, which none of our sacrifices, none of our social programs can make happen. Wherever and whatever we do, we are simply being the channels through which God's gifts of love, peace, justice, and grace are passed on. Old Simeon and Anna know that so I have a lot more patience with them after all these years.
All of which makes their reaction to that baby seem so strange and mysterious. They start singing and praying and shouting as if they had seen what they were waiting for. A child, a gift of God to that family, and they suddenly have a contentment that they had never found before. Both of them act now like they could die tonight because they have finally seen what they were waiting for. They don't seem to be preoccupied with wanting to be here to see all the wonderful things that would happen, having seen that child, Whom they declare is the act of God to redeem His people. Just having seen it is all they ever wanted. They are as happy as the baby at the mother's breast.
And it is strange how as they saw that child they realize for the first time, that if God comes to bring His redemption -- the consolation of Israel -- it will have to be the consolation of the gentiles as well. That if God moves in history to save the Jews, that salvation will have to involve the whole world, all creation. That God cannot hide His light under a bushel, that He who comes as light to the Jew will be light to all who look upon him, to all who know they live in darkness and are hungry for a light. The one who comes as God to redeem will be making redemption possible for all who desire redemption. Old Simeon and Anna begin talking radical changes in their old expectations and hopes from the moment they see the child. Their happiness at seeing him was deep enough even to be happiness despite the realization that this child -- this Messiah -- will not be a child of undiminished joy.
Funny how the moment they see the child it suddenly dawns on them that wherever the light comes it will have a divisive effect. The act of God's grace has a way of dividing those who are ready for that grace from those who do not want it and think they do not need it. The act of God's love is an intrusive love which comes in this child and is either welcomed or resented. At the moment when Old Simeon and Anna are singing and rejoicing they immediately start talking about the pain, the suffering, the burden of sacrifice the child will have and his followers will have as they offer goodness and mercy in a world which often prefers its darkness.
Funny, one kind of thought that Old Simeon and Anna were so set in their ways that they were going to die looking and longing for the Messiah. Now they are acting like teenagers and claim they have seen what they have been waiting for in a baby. That one glimpse at that baby filled their understanding of the grace of God with a universal note it seldom had before and it put a tear of pain and sorrow in that Messiah that most of us had never considered.
Ah, it is time for the service, let us do what we know while we wait to see what happens.