December 31, 2023
Surprised at Any Age
Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to Jerusalem to “present him to the Lord.” This was the ritual of purification for firstborn children. While there, they encountered two people, Simeon and Anna. We don’t hear a lot about either of them.
Simeon is described as a righteous and devout man to whom it had been revealed that he would not die before seeing the Messiah. We can assume he was elderly because when he laid eyes on the baby Jesus, he offered a prayer, essentially saying that he could die in peace now, because his hope had been fulfilled. Anna is a similar case. Luke tells us that she was the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher, and that she was a prophet. This might be a little surprising to those who suppose that religious leadership in Bible times was always the domain of men. In fact, Jewish tradition recognizes seven women as prophets in ancient Israel. And Anna was a prophet at the Jerusalem temple; a position not achieved by happenstance. Particularly in such a place of prominence one is only regarded as a prophet through the power of her words and actions. Anna was no bystander to the events unfolding around her. She was, as we would say today, a major player. And we don’t have to guess about her age. Luke says she was 84 years old.
So these two holy people had been hanging around the Jerusalem Temple for decades, following the same routines, obeying the same rituals, perhaps just about ready to give up on the hope of coming face to face with the promised messiah. And then, after waiting in hope for all those years, Anna and Simeon got a surprise. That for which they had been waiting was to be found in something as simple as a family’s ritual of purification – something as ordinary as a young mother’s face – something as wondrously common as the cry of a baby. An old man ready to die, and an eighty-four year old woman at the peak of her powers both found fulfillment in the least expected place. Simeon may have even surprised himself with what came over him. He found himself uttering the most unexpected prophesy. Frederick Buechner describes the scene well: “Jesus was still in diapers” he writes, “when his parents brought him to the Temple in Jerusalem ‘to present him to the Lord’, as the custom was, and offer a sacrifice, and that’s when old Simeon spotted him. Years before, he’d been told he wouldn’t die till he’d seen the Messiah with his own two eyes, and time was running out. When the moment finally came, one look through his cataract lenses was all it took. He asked if it would be all right to hold the baby in his arms, and they told him to go ahead but be careful not to drop him.
“‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation,’ he said,” Buechner continues, “the baby playing with the fringes of his beard. The parents were pleased as punch, and so he blessed them too for good measure. Then something about the mother stopped him, and his expression changed. What he saw in her face was a long way off, but it was there so plainly he couldn’t pretend. ‘A sword will pierce through your soul,’ he said.
Buechner concludes, “He would rather have bitten off his tongue than said it, but in that holy place he felt he had no choice. Then he handed her back the baby and departed in something less than the perfect peace he’d dreamed of all the long years of his waiting.”1
There were surprises abounding in Jerusalem that day, and they were coming to and coming from a couple of old fogies. In America today, if you’re over forty you’re considered on the downhill side of your abilities, and if you’re over fifty you’re practically unemployable. What a strange culture we have created. We worship youth and spend around 66 billion dollars a year on cosmetics and cosmetic surgery alone.2 There have been cultures throughout history in which old age was venerated and those who had achieved long life were considered wiser and more sound of judgment.
And you and I, the older we get, feel less and less capable of being surprised by anything. We tend to feel that, at a certain age, we’ve seen it all. And now we live in an age when even our young people have pretty much “seen it all.” They’ve certainly had access to most everything there is to see on the Internet. Even our youth are becoming more jaded; people of all ages are less capable of being surprised by life. And when life seems to hold no more surprises, we begin to lose the capacity to hope.
But eighty-four year old Anna and equally aged Simeon have a lesson for us, and it applies even in this age of instant communication and access to information. For these two, the time spent waiting to see the messiah is a time full of energy and spiritual power. It is the waiting of one who hopes; and hope, according to Eric Fromm, is revolutionary. “Hope is paradoxical,” he writes. “It is neither passive waiting, nor is it unrealistic forcing of circumstances that cannot occur. It is like a crouched tiger, which will jump only when the moment for jumping has come . . . . To hope means to be ready at every moment for that which is not yet born, and yet not become desperate if there is no birth in our lifetime. There is no sense in hoping for that which already exists or for that which cannot be.” Fromm continues, “Those whose hope is weak settle down for comfort or for violence; those whose hope is strong see and cherish all signs of new life and are ready every moment to help the birth of that which is ready to be born.”3 And I would add: those who live in hope are always ready to be surprised by life.
Dadgie and I love watching Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, especially the Patrick Stewart version – I think maybe the best yet. Anyway, poor old Scrooge had spent so many years grinding away at his business he was not capable of being surprised by life. It took the ghosts who walked him through his past, present and future to shake him out of the distorted idea that the world ended at the edge of his wallet. It was only after he came to terms with reality and was awakened to deeper meaning that he was able to feel the surprise of a clear, crisp snowy morning, or the joy of encountering a small boy on the street. That’s the kind of expectant living that can turn practically any moment into an occasion! That’s what Scrooge ultimately became known for – his capacity to find and share joy because he was not done being surprised by the gracious wonder of living.
Watching Scrooge being jolted by the vision of Marley in his door knocker reminded me of something I once learned about Francis of Assisi. He had wandered into the abandoned chapel of San Damiano in his hometown one afternoon to pray. To his surprise God seemed to speak to him through a crucifix: “Francis, rebuild my church that you see is falling down.” So Francis began repairs on a dilapidated, unused chapel. There were probably some who thought him pretty strange for doing so, but I suspect he was singing and smiling as he did it.
You don’t have to be led around by the ghost of Christmas past, or see a face in a door knocker, or hear God speaking through a crucifix. All you have to do is live in expectant hope, like Anna and Simeon. And who knows? Maybe you’ll find yourself ready to be surprised by a baby’s cry, or a face on the street, or a paragraph in a book. Maybe you’ll find that you haven’t, in fact, “seen everything” and that each moment is dripping with the unexpected delight of the Divine miracle of incarnation, that every person you meet and every experience that awaits you is a surprise waiting to happen. It can happen, you know, at any age.
1 Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, Harper and Row, 1979, pp. 156-157.
2 https://www.plasticsurgery.org/news/press-releases/americans-spent-more-than-16-billion-on-cosmetic-plastic-surgery-in-2018. https://www.zippia.com/advice/cosmetics-industry-statistics/
3 Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology, Harper & Row, 1968, P. 9.