by James Dunn.
The beginning of the Christian year is always a bit confusing. Straightforward is remembering the circumcision of Jesus, following naturally a week after the commemoration of his birth (January 1). And Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12), comes naturally six days later. But we also have to fit in the baptism of Jesus (January 7) and the conversion of Paul (January 25), which can make us feel the year is rushing ahead far too quickly – or at least, the religious commemorative year.
So it is good that we slow back down to celebrate Candlemas (February 2), the purification of Jesus’ mother Mary, but remembered by Christians more for the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem temple (Luke 2:22-38). Very moving are the encounters with the two elderly individuals, Simeon and Anna. Anna speaks encouraging words about the child ‘to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem’ (2:38), tapping into the political as well as the religious longings of many. And Simeon gives the first utterance of what became known as the Nunc Dimittis (2:29-32), anticipating Luke’s own concern to narrate how the ‘light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’ steadily spread.
But the concluding words of Simeon to Mary should not be passed over lightly. ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too’ (2:34-35). In the midst of the celebrating and rejoicing comes the sobering reminder of what the readers of Luke’s Gospel would already know was a much richer and more austere story.
Which should further remind us of a commemoration which is also part of the season of Christmas celebration, but all too often overlooked – the massacre of the (holy) innocents (Matthew 2:16-18) – as Matthew tells it, king Herod’s attempt to eliminate any possible threat to his reign by slaughtering all infants in and around Bethlehem. And now, a further doleful memory, we also have the commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day, just passed (January 27) – so much like the massacre of the innocents, but so much more horrific.
It is good and right that we remember all these together. For at Epiphany and Candlemas we celebrate not just the dedication of the child Jesus by his mother Mary, and the early recognition that God would do something wonderful through this child. But we also remember how the story unfolds and how it climaxes – in the betrayal, suffering and death of Jesus. We remember how resurrection and new life is not achieved except through suffering – the suffering which says No to self and expresses readiness even for death in dedication to a higher goal.
How can we celebrate Epiphany and Candlemas without remembering too what we call so lightly ‘man’s inhumanity to man’? We don’t celebrate Jesus’ resurrection without remembering his intense suffering and crucifixion. So, can we celebrate the presentation of Jesus in the temple without recalling also the massacres of the Holocaust? And not just the Holocaust of the 1940s, but the Pol Pot massacres in Cambodia in the 1970s, the massacres of mainly Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, the murders of Bosnian men and boys from the town of Srebrenica in 1995, the Darfur genocide which began in 2003, and the Rohingya refugee crisis of recent days.
The intervention of Simeon and Anna is a stark reminder that the good news of Jesus includes uncomfortable self-revelation, not to mention the prospect of suffering and death. A stark reminder that the good news of the gospel is not really good news if it does not include the recognition of how to deal with the bad news. The gospel gives much cause for hope and rejoicing, but it does not promise freedom from anguish and pain. The individual suffering and loss may at times be unbearable. The shock of hearing about the persecution and massacres of whole peoples and villages cannot be softened by easy words. But the good news is that the sword piercing the soul is by no means the whole story, and is not the end of the story. The suffering and death of Jesus by itself would be an unspeakable tragedy, not unlike the many tragedies, individual and corporate, which have besmirched human history. But the gospel absorbs the tragedy and turns it into good news.