Our thoughts during Christmas turn to the Holy Family--Mary and Joseph and the Christ Child--to the adoration of the shepherds and the visit of the Wise Men. This is as it should be.
St. Luke and St. Matthew give us the only information about Jesus? physical birth and but a few scant details about the incidents following his Nativity. Historians did not record his birth nor for thirty years did anyone pay him much heed.
What happened to Jesus and the Holy Family in the days after his birth? Matthew tells us of the flight to Egypt and of Herod's order to kill all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger.
Luke tells of others in the Nativity narrative and their story should not go unnoticed. For example, there was a righteous and devout man in Jerusalem named Simeon. We?re not told much about him. The Gospels are sparing in biographical details but what we are told we do well to ponder. Simeon was an old man, fervent in prayer, haunting the temple, nourishing his soul in the scriptures, saintly in character, looking forward to the time God would deal gently with Israel. He cherished the hope that he might not die before he had seen the Messiah. St. Luke writes that the Holy Spirit was upon him and revealed that he would see the Lord's chosen before he died. His story is summed up in one sentence. He was "... looking for the consolation of Israel."
Now Israel stood in need of consolation. Palestine was occupied territory. Its people were under the heady yoke of Rome. Herod, the ruler, was Rome's vassal, an alien and low-born tyrant. For all that, Simeon, at the time of life when he might have been content to dwell altogether in the past, believed that the best was yet to be. He was filled with hope and confident that a new and brighter day for Israel and for all humankind was close at hand.
In the temple he saw Mary and Joseph who had brought their child to present him to the Lord according to Jewish law--that "Every firstborn male is to be dedicated to the Lord." Suddenly, like a flash of lightening, he knew at long last this child was the Messiah. Taking the infant into his arms and giving thanks to God, he said, "Now, Lord, you have kept your promise and you may let your servant go in peace. For with my own eyes I have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light to reveal your will to the Gentiles and bring glory to your people Israel. Mary and Joseph marveled at what Simeon said about Jesus. Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, "This child is chosen by God, for the destruction and the salvation of many in Israel. He will be a sign from God from which many people will speak against, and so reveal their secret thoughts. And sorrow, like a sharp sword, will break your own heart."
There was also an elderly woman named Anna in the temple who worshipped there with fasting and prayer every day and every night. Coming up to the Holy Family, she gave thanks to God and spoke of the Christ whom all were looking for, for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Simeon and Anna are in many ways symbolic and representative figures. The world has never been without persons of their type, persons with a forward look in whom there burned a great hope, persons on tiptoe, the flame of freedom in their souls, the light of knowledge in their eyes, living in hope and expectation that a great day was coming when wrong would be righted, when justice would be done, when God would reveal his arm and bring salvation to all humankind. One night--twenty centuries ago--the Word became flesh in a baby born in Bethlehem.
And the birth of Jesus is a watershed of history. A third of the world's population claims to be his followers. For Christians, Jesus is the hinge on which the door of history swings, the point at which eternity intersects with time, the Savior who redeems time by drawing all things to himself.
What is it that has drawn hundreds of millions to him, capturing our imagination, our hopes, and our conscience? We?re drawn to him because he's unique. He never wrote a book, never raised an army, never went to college, never had a wife and children. There was no newspaper to advertise him. There were no military battalions to fight for him, no wealthy friend to support him, no political leader to advance him. He built nothing, he destroyed nothing. Externally, the world was the same at the end of his 33 years as it had been at his birth.
What uniqueness! He was never impatient, never jealous. He never entertained suspicion. He was never in a hurry and never uncertain. He never vacillated. He never compromised. He was never proud, overbearing, haughty. He never forced himself on people. And all through history philosophers and thinkers have searched for the truth and speculated about him. Jesus never did. He possessed the truth. He was the truth.
He was completely possessed by God. He never debated or argued the existence of God with anybody, anywhere, at any time. God for him was not a definition but a presence and an experience. And every crisis and in every circumstance, he began his approach from God. We know more about the prayer life of Jesus than any other quality of his character. There were two things Jesus did not know how to do. He did not know how to hate, and he did not know how to disbelieve God. He was utterly unlike anyone before or since.
What he said about himself has no parallel in the history of humankind. He stood before his generation saying, "I Am...the light of the world...the bread of life...the way, the truth and the life...the good shepherd...the door...the resurrection."
He speaks with an omniscience that startles and astounds us. The adverbs we use in our daily conversation are "usually, perhaps, generally, maybe." But Jesus always used "verily." And what is so strikingly significant is that history has recognized the justice of his claims and accepted them. They?re not out of place. Nobody denies them. He's entitled to them.
Now others have made similar claims. History records their names: Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Hitler. I?ve been to Napoleon's tomb. I watched on television, as did the world, as statues of Lenin were pulled from their pedestals. I?ve been to the grave in Moscow of the man Khrushchev who came to America and proclaimed at the United Nations, "We will bury you." The people of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Bloc laugh at the claims of Lenin and Stalin and Khrushchev. But who laughs at Jesus? Lay their claims along side Jesus and his claims have outlasted them all.
It was Jesus who conceived a new world order, a new plan of which no one had ever dreamed, a new moral creation with a new moral order covering all people in all countries of all races and of all ages.
We?re also drawn to him for his compassion. The quality about him which the disciples carried with them and wrote about later in life was his deep concern. He always had time for people. He identified himself with his generation. He became part of the ongoing life of his day. He was approachable. He did not walk through life with a glazed eye. He saw little children in their patched garments. He saw men hard at work. He noticed when people were hungry. He felt compassion when he saw them suffer. He was aware of the feelings of a woman scorned by men for her immoralities. Their aspirations, hopes, fears and needs were seen by his X-ray-like eyes. His eyes were not as a single beam of light turned only upon one aspect of human life; rather, they were like search lights swinging on a pivot that took in the full nature of man. He did not show the world a clenched fist but an outstretched arm. He did not build walls but windows. He did not erect barriers but bridges. He dragged the sorrows of his generation across his soul and he saw in persons always the very image of God beneath all the soil and stain that stayed on the surface.
With eyes wide open, this is the way that Jesus saw the people of his day and us.
Isn't it strange that princes and kings
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings
And common people like you and me
Are builders for eternity.
He saw persons. He cared for people for whom nobody cared. He loved people whom nobody loved, and he saw a chance for people whom nobody gave a chance.
In the upper room of a widow's home in old Jerusalem, he broke bread and said, "Take, eat, this is my body broken for you." He poured wine and said, "This is my blood of the new covenant shed for you," as if to say, "You may break my bones and drain my blood, but you can't ever stop me from loving you."
Such was his life! What a difference he has made in our world.
On a number of occasions I was privileged to be with the great philanthropist Stanley S. Kresge when an assortment of college presidents or other fund-raisers came asking for endowment or financial aid. During the course of the discussion, Mr. Kresge would always ask one question, "Do you think the world is better today than it was 2,000 years ago?" I'd like to ask you that question today. Is the world any better after 2,000 years since Christ came?
I say to you on this closing Sabbath of the second millennium, that it is Jesus Christ and his teachings that lie behind all the efforts at social reform. It was he who put an end to slavery. It was Jesus who abolished the gladiatorial shows of ancient Rome. It was Jesus who elevated the status of women. It was Jesus who sanctified childhood. It was Jesus, who by his emphasis upon the worth of human personality, conferred on us our liberty. It is Jesus who has given us a new way of life, a new standard of conduct, a new power for living. Christ can save our world when Jesus is born again in the hearts of men and women.
In this turbulent time, St. Augustine speaks to us today those words he first spoke 1,500 years ago, "Thou has made us for thyself and our hearts are restless ?til they find their rest in thee."
To the last lonely figure slumped over the bar at the hour of closing, the dull stare of a tired face in what is known as the X-rated movie house, the teenager sneaking away to his hideout with his marijuana, the middle-aged man not quite acting his age at the crowded cocktail party--exaggerated entertainments, excessive drinking, exploited sex--seeking satisfaction in stimulants, pills for ups and pills for downs, loneliness, a sense of being unfulfilled and incomplete--emptiness. Rich in things and poor in soul.
Yes, Augustine was right. God has made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.
Old Simeon in the Temple in Jerusalem seeing Jesus believed Him to be the fulfillment of God's promise to His people and he was at peace. He is still that promise. May we see--and believe--and in so doing--find our peace in Him who is the Prince of Peace! Amen