Joy Comes in the Evening

Last year was the first Christmas that the bulk of a congregation's pastoral care needs fell on my shoulders.  I was warned by other pastors to prepare myself--the need for my presence would mysteriously increase right around the holiday.  I would get "the calls."  And sure enough, beginning two days before Christmas, two broken hips, a nursing home-related family crisis, an accelerated kidney failure.  Those were just the physical emergencies.  For reasons that remain a mystery, Christmastide is a time when, deep within our subconscious--at the place where the body and the spirit intertwine--people prepare to die.

Into this season of year come two bent-over figures, Anna and Simeon.  Some preachers will romanticize their stories--playing up their child-like joy at seeing the Christ, face-to-face.  And I never want to be guilty of diminishing joy.  But my own experience is that joy is not really joy unless it has engaged in a long, drawn-out stare down with something that threatens to push it out of sight--joy vanquishes something in its ascendancy:  despair, hopelessness, physical pain, perhaps a deep, disquieting grief that one's life never lived up to expectations.

Maybe some of you have had the hardest conversation there is:  talking with someone who is facing death and who is not at all at peace with her life.  There is an existential wrestling match with the spectre of death that is not always pleasant to watch.  Not everyone emerges, like Jacob, with a blessing.  All of us know people who died, despairing.

I imagine this dynamic at play beneath the appearance in the temple of Anna and Simeon.  The ancient world could not have been a comfortable place for the aged to persevere.  No climate control, no pain relief, little capacity to mitigate the embarrassing or just plain uncomfortable effects of the body's natural process of breaking down.  There was physical pain in their bodies, morning, noon, and night--a burden that grew heavier with the dawn of each day.  Was there something more?  I don't want to play psychologist for Anna and Simeon, but getting old is not a gentle process on the mind either.  Confusion, social isolation, an inability to sleep well, irritability, gaps in the memory, and delusions are all common as we age.  There is this frustrating sense that you can't keep up, that the world doesn't need you, that your body and mind that have been your bread-and-butter have sold you out.  I confess that I haven't always been understanding, even as a pastor.  As a young man in the church, I've participated in conversations where the graying of the church is discussed like it's a mortal wound--evidence of a church's irrelevance.  I've been guilty of thinking that the world is a "young person's game," and I've judged my playing partners accordingly.

The thing is--more times than not--when I've sat with older adults, I walk away blown away by how openhearted and faithful and even visionary they are.  In my current congregation, it is no exaggeration to say that the older folks are the more radical disciples: missionaries in far-away places before the age of cell phones and the internet, civil rights pioneers, anti-war activists, soldiers for Christ in the war on poverty, openly gay before that was even an option.  In their retirement, they are the soul of our church:  they are the ones who keep the prayer list and pore over and pray over the names and the personal tragedies asking God for mercy upon mercy; they prepare dinners for the family where the young mother is receiving chemo; they sit quietly alongside friends when they have lost their spouse of fifty years; they attend an otherwise sparse daytime funeral for the member who suffered for years with untreated mental illness, and they sit in the pews every Sunday, whether the sermon is good or lousy or somewhere in between.  All the while, do they feel they have become irrelevant--old people in a young person's game?  Maybe.

I sat last week with a woman who is pushing 90.  She has a new pastor in her church and I asked her how the preaching was.  And she said, "David, I stopped listening to the preaching long ago.  I go for the people, for the stories, and for the Lord to feed me with his body and his blood."

As we get older and we continue in the journey of faith, there continues to be joy.  There's probably more joy there than I can even imagine.  It's especially evident with the children--when they drape a prayer shawl around the shoulders of a new mother, when they can take a gift basket and visit a new baby at home.  It's in the gracious welcome of a new, young co-pastor couple and their small children and the refrain that they say, "I am so glad you are here with us," with an emphasis on the "so." 

The late Presbyterian pastor and poet David Steele wrote about Simeon.  In a poem, he recalls hearing that Simeon, a bit of a codger, was going back and forth to the Temple every day in his final years, pronouncing that very same blessing over all the babies presented to him.  It's meant to be funny, this image of Simeon, but then, suddenly, Steele turns and says this:

When I read the blessing

And thought about it,

I began to wish he was right,

About Simeon--and those babies.

And I began thinking about our babies.


And I wished someone,

Some Simeon,

Might hold my grandbabies high--

And yours--

The born ones and the not yet

Proclaiming to them

With great conviction,

"You are the saviors of the World!"

Meaning it so absolutely

Those young 'uns would live it,

And love it,

And make it happen![1]

It's not that we are saviors, we babies, we young ones in the church.  Not at all.  It's just that for those who have walked the long road of faith, who have held on to the long cord of life in their hands and felt all of its frays and burrs, but also found it indescribably sturdy--for those who have waited on the Lord, holding on until their hands hurt, holding on for their lives...they have received a reward.  And although I don't know yet for sure what it is, I suspect that the reward is joy. 

Joy vanquishes something in its ascendancy.  And joy always finds a subject to shower itself upon.  And if you hold on long enough--or if something holds you long enough, then--then, what joy!  You can hold the baby in your crooked arm and meet its eyes and whisper in its ear, "Oh, you young one...oh, if you only knew how hard it will be...and, by God, how good it all is."

Joy comes in the evening.  Joy comes when we can say with all of the saints, "Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou has prepared before the face of all people to be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of thy people Israel."

Let us pray together

O Gracious God, bless those of us who are old, those of us who are young, and those of us who find ourselves every place in between.  Give us such grace that we might lift our children high and that we might receive our children in crooked arms and offer a blessing upon them that they might know they are the saviors of the world, for we have seen your salvation.  You are a light unto us, a light to all people.  In your name we pray.  Amen. 

[1] From the Presbyterian Outlook, April 17th, 2000, 12.