Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Worthy Son...



FOR THE Second Sunday of Christmas we continue to study the young life or our Lord from the Gospel According to Saint Luke. Not recorded elsewhere, the writer of Luke provided us with an exclusive window through which we can peer. We thus look with our mind’s eye and see an early scene concerning Jesus’ growing realization about his divine identity.

And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom; and when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem.
 His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the company they went a day’s journey, and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him.
 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.”  And he said to them, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
  And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man. 
                                                                                                        (Luke 2:40-52)



Family Business?
Using material from an independent source, Luke had weaved into his gospel a marked progression in the growth of Jesus. The view he provided for his early church communities related to them the religious customs of the day. This religious fulfillment according to the Law, familiar to the Jews of his congregations, was thus also spelled out for those Gentiles who may not have known about the customs. In particular, we note the transitional statement wherein Jesus was described as having grown strong and wise, with God watching over him. This statement bridges all the readers, whether Jew or Gentile, from the infant dedication narrative found just prior to this story.
 But, we first must note the omission of a story about an angel’s warning to Joseph as recorded in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, and subsequent family’s flight to Egypt. Rather than writing such, our Lukan gospel writer jumped directly to our Lord’s pre-teen years. Thus given the omission and leap forward in time, the gospel record likely shows several possibilities. First, we might assume that Luke did not know about the flight to Egypt. Second, we may also ask whether… if Luke had the story, a choice was made. Possibly some choices were made between the accounts… given a finite amount of parchment available to write the total gospel account. If the latter is most likely, we may ask, “What character of today’s story would recommend it for inclusion for Luke’s churches, while deliberately not including the Egyptian flight story?” In answer, we ask, “Could the difference between the gospels reveal the writer’s priority in relating the biography of Jesus?” You see, no matter whether based upon an independent exclusive source or considering the subject importance, Luke went directly to tell his audience of Jesus’ first act as an adult. I see the possibility of his having an exclusive eye-witness account available as unlikely, since the gospel was written some 70 years after the actual event. Few, if any first-hand witnesses would still be alive at the time of the writing. For this reason, given the expense and scarcity of parchment, I consider that a hard choice was made. This story held greater relevancy for Luke than relating concerning our Lord’s travel to Egypt as an infant. When making these hard choices, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Luke deliberately chose to tell this story.
 We must also ask at this point, “If Jesus is the Son of God, why did the gaining of wisdom need to be done? Wouldn’t he already possess infinite knowledge?” However, consider this. With Jesus existing as fully human and fully God, we need remember that scripture said that he, as the Christ had “emptied himself”. A reasonable answer thus is found…

“For what things are written of Him as a man shew the manner of the emptying. For it were a thing impossible for the Word begotten of God the Father to admit ought like this into His own nature: but when He became flesh, even a man like unto us, then He is born according to the flesh of a woman, and is said also to have been subject to the things that belong to man’s state: and though the Word as being God could have made His flesh spring forth at once from the womb unto the measure of the perfect man, yet this would have been of the nature of a portent: and therefore He gave the habits and laws of human nature power even over His own flesh.” (Cyril of Alexandria. (1859). A Commentary upon the Gospel according to S. Luke. (R. P. Smith, Trans.) (p. 29). Oxford: Oxford University Press.)



Therefore by the will of God, the Christ… the Word of God born as a human child, emptied himself of infinite wisdom. Luke described to his churches that in the Jewish culture of the day, a male child grew twelve years of age and then acquired the required maturity to be called a “son of the Law”. From the Hebrew scriptures we thus find that the Jews recognized these progressive stages of youthful development as: new-born babe (as read in Isa. 9:6); nursing or suckling (Isa. 11:8); nursing, but then calling for solid food (Lam. 4:4); the weaned (Isa. 28:9); as child clinging to mother (Jer. 40:7); becoming firm and strong (Isa. 7:14); and finally… the youth matured as an adult (Isa. 31:8). Thus this was the progression made by humans, and the trip described wherein the child Jesus was noted as arriving into maturity.
 Was this story describing a trip to celebrate rite of passage, similar in many respects to our historic Christian confirmation ritual? I offer it as so. The traditions of Bar Mitzvah (in the Hebrew בַּר מִצְוָה) are still considered today as Jewish coming-of-age rituals. The term translates to "son of commandment" However, in rabbinical usage the phrase “subject to” is added. The term thus translates as to 'a son subject to the Law'. Although the term is commonly used to refer to the ritual, in fact the phrase originally referred to the person performing the ritual.
 According to present Jewish practice, when male children arrive at 13 years-old, they become accountable for their own actions. Prior to reaching the age of bar mitzvah, the child's parents hold the religious responsibility for the child's actions. However, after bar mitzvah is completed, the youth bears their own responsibility for obedience to Jewish law, ritual and ethics. The youth thus becomes able to participate in all areas of Jewish community life. The father of the candidate then gives thanks to God that he is no longer punished for his child's sins. Also, the newly-recognized adult can be included in a "minvan” (prayer quorum), and can also lead prayer and other religious services in the family and the Hebrew community.

Human Expectations!
Given these historical traditions, yet present, I therefore take editorial privilege by offering that according to parental expectations written here, Jesus went to Jerusalem take his rightful place in the “company that traveled with him”. He went to Jerusalem as a child, having studied and prepared for the ritual, and received ritual adulthood. After appropriate celebration, therefore, Jesus was expected to take his place in the household economy… i.e. he was to follow Joseph’s trade, a trade that was parentally selected for him, or a trade which the “company” was known to possess.
 However, here we likely find scriptural evidence that the parental couple had long-forgotten the prophecy of Simeon as stated previously in this same gospel. Luke related that the family had left Jerusalem to return home, but without their realizing… Jesus exercised his right to remain in prayer quorum. After a day of travel toward their home, his parents discovered him as missing from their family. Thus they became distraught. They considered him as lost in what could be a dangerous place, and returned worried to Jerusalem.
 Any caring parent chills at the thought of a lost child. We know that many horrid thoughts run through a worried parent’s mind. Many might ask ourselves today, “How could this young man… this Jesus… this Son of God… be so callous to his parents?’ We might even say that we understand how this could happen… that some of our own children may be so callous that they would toss aside parental oversight during the teen years… sneaking away to do what they will and worry us. We might also say that we have seen many teens who receive catechism, disappear from church after they receive Confirmation…. and are not found in the family of the congregation. But this Jesus… this is the perfect Son? How can this be?
 I say to those who question in such manner that it was not that he was insensitive to his earthly parents… but from his study of Hebrew Scriptures he had become keenly aware of his heavenly Father’s matters ( in the Greek the word translates “things” ). He thus, as an adult within his culture, told his earthly parents that he was to be about the business of his heavenly Father. By doing so he began fulfilling that future to which he was called. With his being found by his earthly parents, and their hearing the statement from their child who was now considered as adult, we may consider that Joseph and Mary’s words of anxiety were lessened and even stopped. However, out of respect… and the human need for further growth and nurture, Jesus returned with them to Nazareth. Our Lord most likely worked many years thereafter with his father and family. This hometown and family life continued stable for a period of nearly twenty years, until his baptism by his cousin John… but this interim time is a period about which the scripture falls silent. Some non-canonical stories had circulated around the time of the Lukan writng, but either these were not verifiable or of sufficient importance to be included in the gospel record. Consequently the Lukan text provides us only with this very precise, and brief, prophetic look into a formative event in the life of Jesus. The transitional statement at the end to today’s reading thus tells us in closing…“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.”
 This gospel thus sets us as readers or hearers in a very knowledgeable place in our modern church. We are by the Spirit, poised for that which is to come. Consider this! In this unfolding story given by the power of the Holy Spirit, the writer placed us as witnesses to the only known record of Jesus’ coming of age before the infant church. We see that Luke slowly, yet artfully built the tension of the history he is relating toward the saving act for which our Lord came into this world. This young man he told about... this Jesus… was surely described as truly human. The history then continued to reveal his ministry, his death and his Resurrection... and by the power of the Holy Spirit, he was thus truly revealed as the only Begotten Son of God. Both as human and divine, therefore, he created a pathway for those who would follow him. This was the purpose of the telling of this story in Luke… so it was written… and so it is even yet.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Sin and Savior Crossing



THE GOSPEL reading for the First Sunday of Christmas defines Jesus as a child, who though the Son of God... clearly possessed flesh and blood humanity. No mere figment of imagination, Jesus’ participation in family is defined here as having much wider meaning than most people of that time could have ever thought possible. We read…

And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said.., “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.”
 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother.., “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”
 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanu-el, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
 And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.  (Luke 2:22-40)

Long Watching and Waiting
Our text from Luke described events for the child Jesus and his family that occurred in keeping the traditions of the Law. As required by the Law, within eight days Jesus was circumcised and named. This profound act set the child apart first as a Jew, and also as an individual within Jewish society. Jesus was also presented as first born by Joseph, and as it was written... (see Exodus 13:2, Numbers 18:15-16). Also note...

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean.’ And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying; she shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. (Leviticus 12:1-5)

 Therefore forty days later the purification of Mary was accomplished at the temple, Until that time expired, Mary was considered to be separate and unclean while in menses. In fact, if travel was needed a Jewish woman of that era would be required to ride an oxen. The animal had a wide back so that menstrual blood would not reach the ground and soil a sepulcher. 
 When the forty days had past for a mother, those who were sufficient in worldly goods would often sacrifice a lamb. In those days, a lamb would cost about one dollar and seventy-five cents. If the woman was poor, however, the price of either doves or pigeon would suffice. These last were available at a cost of about sixteen cents each.
 However... any offering made... whether large of small, would not be done personally by the woman. She was not allowed entry into the temple. She could not personally bring the creatures in, but would drop the purchase price to be given into one of the thirteen trumpet-shaped chests located in the Court of the Women. We note that it is pleasant indeed that her son Jesus would change these things for the better, eliminating the way women were excluded in that male-dominated society.
 Subsequent it was during the performance of these lawful, traditional rituals that Mary, Joseph and others with them received further revelation. Shortly after the Rite of Purification was completed, Simeon (a name meaning “sign”) noted the child’s presence in the courtyard. Simeon was a righteous and devout man. He had practiced strict adherence to the Law. Taking his faith very seriously and looking after his spiritual condition, he was seen widely as one who walked constantly with God by the power of the Holy Spirit. In this capacity his prophetic statements were profoundly revered.
 Through Simeon, the announcement came that the Light of God’s love had arrived. Jesus, who was a child already born and given to Israel, was prophetically thus said by Simeon to expand the faith into the Gentile nations. Through the Messiah then, Luke stressed... Israel thus would attain its true and highest glory.
 The prophecy of Simeon, which was often read or spoken in the infant Christian household churches of Luke’s day, therefore reinforced the acceptance of Greeks, Romans and other nationalities into the faith community. These were solidly anchored by Luke’s writing as participants in the mission of the church. They participated in the receiving of  “holy things for holy people”.
 At the time of that first temple visit, Joseph and Mary marveled at what was said by Simeon. But to Mary, he gave warning.. as the prophet revealed more of the child’s Messianic role. He foretold that a broad sword’s wound described Mary’s future deep and painful pang. It was indeed the very personal pain of Jesus crucifixion that would to be felt by her. Her son would be nailed to the cross for the salvation of believers. This was the strife and the result foretold by Simeon in scripture…

And he will become a sanctuary, and a stone of offense, and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble thereon; they shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.” (Isaiah 8:13-16)

This Child!
Luke then stressed that the elderly prophetess Anna appeared. She announced the child Jesus to all who attended with her within that courtyard. Here we must note that this was not a public broadcast to the temple authorities. The intent was not to inform the temple authorities. The words were spoken directly to the pious ones who had prayed daily with her in the courtyard. It was said especially to those lowly who had long waited with her for the Messiah.
 That Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple so that all “righteousness” should be fulfilled, puts these events on the same level of importance in Luke’s gospel as the later baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. You see, as Jesus had told John during that later event, that baptism should happen so that “all righteousness should be fulfilled” so it was with this event. In Luke then, this was the first of multiple testimonies to his readers that Jesus was raised according to the Law, and none of the Mosiac tenets were broken.
 From that early time, the child Jesus grew in favor before his family. He maintained the code of innocence given as empowered by his heavenly Father. In this way the Messiah, having fulfilled the Law in its entirety… and even yet having been crucified… could pay the penalty not for his own waywardness… but instead he laid down his life to pay for our disobedience and separation from God.
 Take note of that importance! This deliberate saving act of God made through his only begotten Son, accomplished holy satisfaction for our sin. To God be the glory! Such was the witness of Simeon, Anna and Luke when they announced that the Messiah… the Deliverer… had come into the world. Indeed, on this day we consider again their words… and marvel.