Good news and bad news

December 23, 2008

The good news is not, of course, good news for everyone.

It
surely is for the hungry, for those in the valley and for the bruised
and broken earth. The psalmist calls the world and all in it to praise
God's work of creation and re-creation, and not only God's people, but every single thing that has languished under the crushing burden of human sin and indifference.

But more than a few mouths will be clamped shut. Not everyone wants
to sing praise for this news—not those who prosper by others' poverty
nor those who prefer crooked paths to straight ones. Those who love the
dark world just as it is will rage at the new fanfare, and chief among
the dissenters will be the "rulers of the earth." (While they too are
invited to join the descant, this may be pro forma, so that they are without excuse when all is set right.)

In
short, the coming of the Messiah is good news and also very bad news, a
sword with two sharp edges. It's a reason for rejoicing and for
weeping. We see this in Simeon and Anna, the Nativity's odd couple. Anna
was, well, unusual—most 84-year-old women do not spend all their time
at the temple, praying and fasting. And although the text does not tell
us Simeon's age or where he spent his time, he too was unusual, focused
as he was on "looking forward to the consolation of Israel."

Simeon
may have been a young idealist who stayed mostly away from the temple,
distrusting those who had long since lost their own idealism—who were
not looking for the consolation of Israel at all but simply for a way to
survive. Perhaps the temple priests distrusted him, too—dismissed
him—because they considered him a fanatic. After all, "the Holy Spirit
rested on him," and that's always trouble for religious professionals.

Did
Simeon come to the temple only on that day, urged or driven by the same
spirit that kept Anna there day and night? Or was he too there every
day, not praying and fasting, but scrutinizing all the new parents and
babies and making everybody nervous?

I wonder whether Anna and
Simeon knew each other. She was a wizened and fearless prophetess, and,
if he was a young idealist, then together they may be the chiastic face
of Psalm 148:12.

What
we know for sure is that today there is both praise and warning, both
joy and dread. Jesus is born, yet by this time in the liturgical
calendar, Stephen is already dead. A sword will pierce Mary and all who
love Jesus, as it will Jesus himself. But in the prescribed
time—according to the calendar and promises of God—the world will be
purified by Jesus' coming.