I, Luke, when I came to realize that Jesus was indeed God’s Savior for the world, I was moved to gather up the various accounts and reports and documents that were circulating among us to set down an orderly account of everything that happened just 31 years ago. Before too much time elapses, it was natural that I should journey to Ephesus, where John is now overseeing some fledgling churches in that area roundabout, and interview Jesus’s mother herself.
Mary, of course, as all of you know, is a strong and lovely woman in her early 80s, and she took me out to sit with her in that charming little garden she’s cultivated that no doubt some of you have visited. And, since I know you’re going to ask, yes, the crocuses that you call Rose of Sharon that some of you well-wishers from the plains next to Mt. Carmel sent with that caravan from Joppa did make it here safely and were in full bloom when I visited.
Just as you said, they are breathtaking – a beautiful white blossom – snow white as the resplendent robes of our great high priest Jesus, deep blood red in the center as the blood he shed for us, and with a golden pistil in the center to remind us of his victor’s crown. Beautiful and meaningful and his mother appreciates them – so thank you.
Anyway, for those of you who haven’t seen her garden, she intersperses it with flowers and vegetables, which is so like her character– valuing both the beautiful and the practical.
As all of you know, Mary is such a scholar – a fine poet in her own right – in fact, in my book I’ve recorded a beautiful ode she composed at her cousin Elizabeth’s house when she was still very young and still carrying Jesus – it’s a lovely composition of words and music – though I’ve only put in the words. You can all find it early on in my book, when you get around to hearing it in church or reading it yourself.
What you may not know, however, is beyond that gracious demeanor Mary is a profound thinker too. Her memory is like a vast library with corridors of archival recollections – each one tabulated and set in place. From this vast storage, she can summon and retrieve conversations and occurrences in startling detail, for these are her treasures, carefully collected and stored within her.
It is only to be expected, then, that she is the repository of various curious reports. These she has collected and preserved from the beginning, she being the thoughtful family historian, while the always practical Joseph was the family’s protector and preserver.
And it was from Mary herself that I heard the story I came to tell you of two singular mature people, boon companions of faith, whose remarkable dedication God rewarded in such an astounding fashion.
As a doctor, of course, I am keenly interested in people’s wellbeing. All of my professional years I have spent trying to find cures for my patients’ ailments, trying to add on a few more years to their life spans, in short, trying to keep them all alive.
Imagine my shock, then, to learn from Mary’s own lips, about two individuals, that, for a certain space and time, were immortal! They were literally kept from death by the Sovereign God, so that they could see how God was going to save their nation!
Well, I myself have treated many of the aged and seen some sturdy and vigorous constitutions, but never one like the famous Moses, whose eye had not dimmed and whose step had not slackened. And, yet, Mary herself had met such people in her own time and their story was intrinsically tied up with that of the wondrous child that she bore.
She came upon them – but, really, they encountered her – when our Lord was still an infant, only 8 days old!
By now all of you have heard of that famous night of uncertainty and grace, with its desperate search for shelter and its disappointing end in a cave – a night which suddenly turned resplendent when the heavens opened and angels heralded Christ’s birth, and want was met as the shepherds, who saw the glory brought milk and food to comfort the baby, as any practical, thoughtful, working people will do.
Well, seven days had gone by while Mary and Joseph slowly traveled the six miles up the caravan route that links Bethlehem to Jerusalem, the weary mother drooping over her tiny precious little bundle, keeping it safe. In the capital they found plenty of accommodations and so they could rest before bringing their tiny son to be circumcised according to the established custom of the Jewish ritual law.
And that’s when the wondrous infant met the wondrous ancients.
Simeon was a senior citizen who lived in the city, not far from the temple. All his life he had been known as a man who was righteous and devout. But, it was more than that – he was a man who had the Holy Spirit of God upon him, and – believe it or not – the Spirit of God had revealed to him that he would not see death, before he saw the Lord Christ.
It was in the Spirit that he went into the Temple, just as Jesus’s parents were bringing the child into that first large court – the one they call the women’s court, where the women are allowed to enter – right inside the Beautiful Gate. That’s where the people assemble to worship, you know, where the Levite choir performs on the steps there before the Nicanor Gate that shuts off the inner courtyard where only the priests are allowed to enter. Well, that’s where they do the circumcision.
All of the Jews, including those of the Way who lead us, still are circumcised at birth, though many of us Gentiles who joined after that wonderful and blessed counsel in Jerusalem that freed us from the ritual law, don’t have to go through the rite of circumcision as adults – whew! We do, however, practice it with our infants, it being a lot easier for them.
Well, anyway, that’s where Mary and Joseph were bringing Jesus, when suddenly Simeon comes rushing in and looking all around among the people, when the Holy Spirit says so clearly to him: “This is the One!”
“This is the One!”
Simeon comes right over and everyone simply steps aside, knowing who he was and his great godliness and Mary, who was so protective of her divine little charge, told me she suddenly felt the same Spirit telling her it was all right to let this elderly stranger take her precious child in his arms – so that’s what she did. He cuddled the child and gazed at him with such love and began praising God. “Now you can end your servant’s life, O Sovereign One,” he cried out, “because I have seen with my own eyes your salvation.” And, as his eyes swept over all the multitude that crowds in there daily, all those that were standing gaping at this strange occurrence, Simeon added, “a salvation, which you prepared right before the faces of all people – a light of revelation to the Gentiles!” (And here – thank God – he was referring to God’s blessing to me and to many of you, since we’re Gentiles not Jews, being grafted onto Israel, like my dear brother and fellow missionary Paul likes to put it.)
And, of course, Simeon also added for the Jews, that this infant Savior was also for “the glory of our people Israel.”
“Well,” Mary confided to me, “you can imagine how Joseph and I marveled at all he was saying. Here was just one more proof in a surprising series of events that this indeed was God’s Son.
“You see,” she explained, “after my initial visitation by the angel who told me I was going to bear God’s child and that vision that Joseph had in a dream, there was nothing but life as usual.
“As the months rolled on, they seemed to get lost first in all the village gossip about me, and then that awful trip to Bethlehem for the taxation when I was well over nine months pregnant and ready to deliver at any moment – joggling along on that donkey and my back killing me and the baby dropping and me wondering, Doctor Luke, if at any second my water was going to break and I might have him right there by the side of the road.
“And then we had all that trouble trying to find a place to stay and ending up in a stable.
“And that very night the baby came and nobody but the innkeeper’s wife and Joseph to help out – and us so far away from home and me from my mother.
“And then suddenly there were these young shepherds peeking in, and nervously fidgeting with their caps, and telling us the angels had come and told them about us – but we ourselves didn’t see the angels or hear them – they told us that visitation had happened out in the fields.
“So, then, two days later, after Joseph seemed to wait forever in line in order to pay the taxes, we had to pack up what we had and make our way to Jerusalem for the baby, and I was so tired and the baby was so tiny and I was so frustrated, thinking, what kind of reception was this that God’s Great Revelation – the Savior of all humanity – had received, being ushered into an animal cave, then a dusty caravan route, and another cheap inn in the poorer quarters in the backside of the capital, because that’s all we could afford, us being so young and just starting out.
“And that’s why what happened at the Temple was so wondrous and affirming to me, because the renowned Simeon turned specifically to us. And then he raised his hand and blessed us and then he spoke to me specifically in a voice so kind, but his words – words of prophecy – right from God, the baby’s true Father through the power of the same Holy Spirit that had brought Simeon into the temple that day – well, those words pierced into my soul. He said to me: ‘Listen, this one is destined to cause the falling and the rising of many in Israel and to be a sign of opposition – and your own soul will be passed through by a sword – so that many hearts’ thoughts will be revealed.’
And, as he gave me back the infant, I saw the woman. She was standing just behind him – his counterpart: the Prophetess.
Her name was Anna. And, if Simeon was old, she was even older!”
“How old?” I asked, fascinated.
Mary laughed. “Well,” she said, “she was far older than I am now. Let me put it this way: She was past the age of nudging you in the side and cackling, ‘Bet you can’t guess how old I am!’ She’d been a widow for 84 years. And before that I learned she’d been married for seven years. And, if she’d been married around fifteen or sixteen, as I had been, then she must have been around 106 years old! And even if she’d been married at twelve, which is about the earliest we Jews will allow, she’d still have been about 103.
“She glowed like the very elderly do – that luminescence where the spirit is glowing through the frail body as if it meant to depart at any moment’s notice. But what I found so remarkable about this woman was she was so clear and focused. She’d taken her role as an anointed prophetess of God very seriously. She was out of the tribe of Asher, and like her great Matriarch, Leah, first wife of Jacob, Anna was persistent and resolute. But, like her namesake, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, what she was resolute about was prayer. In fact, I learned that she spent so much time in prayer, worship, fasting, and more prayer day and night, that after a while she moved into one of those little rooms that are built on the raised base of the temple, whose backs form the outer wall and serve as little houses, you know, the ones with passages running out of one into another with easy access into them from the temple gate?
“Well, this great woman of prayer, so faithful and mighty that they installed her in the Temple itself to keep fervent prayer going up before the throne of God, she began praising God and openly speaking about my child and telling everyone who gathered around her that he was the Redeemer for whom they had been waiting.
“And that was the moment I realized the words of Simeon were already coming true, because of the reactions I was noticing. The great bearded Temple leaders, the Sadducees, shook their heads and turned away in disgust, because they no longer looked for anything. The prosperous merchants, some Pharisees who were walking through, paused and gazed curiously at our baby, but then they looked at us and our poor clothing and dropped their eyes and moved on. They were looking for a political deliverer – and apparently we did not strike them as the kind of people whose son could raise a delivering army.
“But the truly faithful, those like Simeon and Anna herself who were waiting expectantly to welcome the Redeemer of Jerusalem – and, indeed of all the world, they gathered around and praised God with Anna.
“Today, in all the things that have happened since then, I feel myself most akin to these two wonderful people – and not just because I am nearing them in age! But, being now in my 80s, I draw strength from their example - so ancient, so grand, so strong, so faithful, so certain – twin fortresses in whose faith and certitude a generation of true believers took refuge until my Son, our Savior, stepped forth in God’s time and brought the end to that age of waiting.
“Still, sometimes in the night, I remember so vividly the words of Simeon and the deeds of Anna. I see them both raising their hands in praise to God, testifying that the great God had come among us in the tiny Redeemer I held in my arms.
“I see their faces – so beautiful – shining in the whiteness of their hair and the luminescence of their spirits, angel-like, as if they were already in praise with all the hosts of heaven before the throne of God. And I see the people gathered around them, drawing strength from their faith, and looking into their faces to reflect the glory there, and I think – that is how I want to be to those who know me – a person drawn so near to God that God has drawn near to me and draws others even nearer through the purity of my faith.
“I have held eternity in my arms. I have worked with people who have been accused of turning the world upside down with a message of love and peace and joy sung by the hosts of heaven itself one night long ago in the fields around the stable. I have been visited by kings and given treasures in honor of my child, but I know I am just a handmaid of the Lord who has been singularly blessed.”
Mary paused in reverie as the aged sometimes do, simply nodding and smiling – not so much to me as to people she’d known long ago.
As I sat silently beside her, I knew the wall between past and present, this world and the next, now and forever was dissolving before her. She was living in many times now and would soon be ushered by the same Holy Spirit who had once visited her when she was so young into the beloved presence of the Child she once bore and whom she now worshiped, our Lord himself.
I came away changed from the meeting. It is one thing to hear the great story of our redemption and the coming of the child who achieved it, but it’s another thing entirely to meet the people who were part of it and so resolute– to hear their stories and see their peace and joy which are so absolute.
I took away with me the examples of Anna and Simeon and Mary herself and as I left her in her garden, I thought of another garden even longer ago where all the trouble began and I knew that was lost forever.
But, at the same time, I took heart when I thought of a city yet to come – a new capital where I myself, and you, and many others could be citizens - an eternal city that didn’t need a temple to praise God – because the holy Triune God of light is its temple, its light, its splendor, its glory, magnificent in the eternal day.
And, so as not to disturb her memories, I walked away, and, as I did, I looked up toward heaven and prayed: “Thank you Lord, for letting me live in a time such as this, a time after you’ve come among us to redeem us. And thank you, Lord, for sacred lives like these lived out among us, as examples that we can follow. And thank you that your coming among us is not just a legend in some misty past, but a true event that happened in my lifetime and heralds hope for the future. I’m so blessed that I have a share in this hope here and now and always – in my day, in this time, in this place, in my life, a hope shared now with all those who come after me in the future, and may all that I think and say and do please you.”
And I went home and I finished my book. And the Spirit said to me, “Amen.”
And I answered: “Amen!”
Sources consulted: Josephus, Jewish War v.5.5.; Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible; Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke (I.C.C.); Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible; David Howard and Gary Burge, Fascinating Bible Facts; The Temple throughout Bible History; Ezekiel 41-42; Harry James Frank, Atlas of the Bible Lands. Image comes from google images 1479b5a51ab13a9ce6cc34a77ce2055c.