Text: Luke 2:22-40 (Year B, First Sunday after Christmas)
When I was a pastor, I had the honor of attending and presiding at several Watch Night services.
As a white clergy person, I had to learn the history of the Watch Night tradition. While it began with the Moravians in 1733, the service took on special significance for African Americans on the eve of January 1, 1863. That was when Abraham Lincoln designated that the Emancipation Proclamation would become law. After over two centuries in slavery, Americans of African descent would finally be set free by the law. “On the first day of January, 1863, all persons held as slaves within any state or designated part of a State . . . shall be then, thenceforward and forever free” (Abraham Lincoln, Emancipation Proclamation).
This meant that on New Year’s Eve, 1862, (also known as “Freedom’s Eve”) slaves gathered all over in churches, homes, and wherever they could meet, to celebrate and wait together for the moment that the Emancipation Proclamation would become law. The faithful offered prayers of thanksgiving and praise to God that first Watch Night for finally reaching “The Promised Land” of freedom. Ever since, African American churches continue the Watch Night tradition of gathering on New Year’s Eve to thank God for the past year, and to ask God’s blessing upon the year to come.
As 2017 comes to a close on a year of racial justice regression, Watch Nights will again take on poignant significance.
And as lectionary preachers prepare their sermons for the First Sunday after Christmas – which happens to fall on New Year’s Eve – this would be the ideal service to remind our churches of the need to address issues of racial hatred, white privilege, and the ongoing effects of America’s original sin – slavery. On this Watch Night, we remember that Ku Klux Klan rallies, spikes in racially-motivated hate crimes, and the continued murders of black men, women, and children by police have marked the first year of Trump’s presidency. It feels like we’ve taken several steps backward. We long for a fresh start, a new beginning, some sign of hope.
In Luke 2:22 – 40, we see a man who is also longing for a sign of hope for his people – Simeon.
Simeon is an older man who is “looking forward to the consolation of Israel,” (v. 25). He has waited a long time for release and freedom. He longs for freedom from the occupying power of the Roman Empire which exacts a heavy toll on his people. Simeon longs for a restoration of the people of Israel. He longs to see the Messiah, the Anointed One, who will lead his people once again into the fullness of the Promised Land.
And, the scripture says, “the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (Luke 2:26).
Waiting and watching all his life, Simeon wonders, how long will it be?
It’s very likely that he has become weary of waiting by this point. As every season turns and each year passes, he gets older and his body gets weaker and more fragile. It may be that he even longs now for a different freedom – freedom from life.
I’ve met some people for whom death is not a dreaded thing, but a welcomed event. After long years of suffering, they long to see God face to face. They long to be released from their body, to experience an existence that transcends this earthly one.
I can imagine that fateful morning when Simeon rose from his bed one more day. Every joint creaks. Each step is a painful reminder of every fall, every bad habit, every illness. Most days he simply putters around the house, not venturing far from his front door step. But this morning he feels restless, and follows an urge to make the slow walk to the Temple. “Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple…” (2:27).
And there he saw the child.
How did he know this was the One? Was there a halo-like glow around his smooth little head? Did he hear the rumors of shepherds who claimed to have seen angels proclaiming the birth of the Messiah? Or did he simply hear a still, small voice whispering, “There, Simeon. There he is.”
“ . . .and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God.”
We echo his words in the Lutheran funeral liturgy and vespers service:
Lord now you let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light to reveal you to the nations, and the glory to your people Israel.
Ah, the song of sweet release! Simeon’s swan song.
But it is a bittersweet ending, for he goes on to prophesy the fate of this little boy, the fate of his people, and the fate of Mary herself. The Bible translation called The Message puts his words this way:
“This child marks both the failure and the recovery of many in Israel, a figure misunderstood and contradicted — the pain of a sword-thrust through you — But the rejection will force honesty as God reveals who they really are.” (Luke 2:34 – 35)
And isn’t this just the way it is when our hopes are fulfilled? Yes, we are happy when we achieve what we have worked for, when we get what we were promised. And yet, there is a bittersweetness to it. Because it means that one chapter has ended, and another is about to begin. And we may very well be in for more than we bargained for once we enter this new stage of our lives. There can be an uneasy feeling of dread as we speculate about the unknown that lies ahead.
It was like that for the slaves in America.
Yes, they were legally declared free in 1863. But the war which followed would mark the failure and recovery of a nation. These newly freed ones will be misunderstood and contradicted. And they will feel the pain of the sword-thrusts for generations afterward. Lynchings, mob violence, laws of discrimination and blatant racism. Today with the New Jim Crow, and blatant expressions of racial hatred, there is an ongoing struggle to achieve the equality that was granted on paper nearly one hundred fifty years ago.
But just at that moment of jarring prophecy, at the very point where their joy in hope fulfilled is being threatened by fear of what lies ahead, another voice is heard.
It is the voice of Anna.
Like Simeon, she is older as well. She was at least in her eighties, a prophetess “who never left the temple, but worshiped there with fasting and prayer day and night. At that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:37).
Thank goodness for Anna!
Not a moment too soon, she reminds them that this is no time for apprehension and dread. This is a time for celebration! She might have even repeated the words from Ecclessiates 3:4, “There is a time for mourning and a time for dancing . . . and this is a time for dancing!”
“Stand up, old man,” I can see her cajoling Simeon. “Dance with me! Look at this darling baby boy! This precious newborn given to us as a sign that God has not forgotten us! We’ve come this far by faith! God will take us the rest of the way, you can be sure. Get up and dance!”
And then I fast forward in my imagination to Mary, Jesus’ mother, on Easter morning.
Still reeling from the events of two days before, did she recall her encounter with Simeon? Was she still aching from the sword-thrust through her heart as she watched her precious baby boy being pierced by the sword on the cross?
But then, suddenly, the women burst into her home, excitedly telling her the news of her son’s resurrection. At that moment did she recall Anna’s joyous praise of God for this child who would redeem all people?
“Stand up, dear woman!” they might have said to Mary, taking her hand and lifting her to her feet. “Dance with us! We saw your darling baby boy! This precious man given to us anew as a sign that God has not forgotten us! We’ve come this far by faith! God will take us the rest of the way, you can be sure!”
It’s all just speculation, I know. But on this Watch Night, I am encouraged by the thought that God is still at work in the world, just as God was back then. God is filling people with hope that, no matter what lies ahead, we can take comfort that we’ve come this far by faith. And God will take us the rest of the way, we can be sure.
As we come to this Watch Night, it’s time to recommit ourselves to justice for our brothers and sisters of color.
We must refuse to accept the normalization of racial hatred. We must learn how to talk about race issues in our congregations. [See the forthcoming Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully About Racism by Carolyn B. Helsel.] As we take a knee during the National Anthem in solidarity with those who respectfully protest police brutality of the black community, we must insist that the day is coming when we will be able to stand up together in true freedom.
“Stand up, O People of Faith,” Anna proclaims on this Watch Night. “There is a time for mourning and a time for dancing. This is the time for dancing! Dance in the face of hatred and oppression. In the face of violence and murder – dance! Dance as an act of resistance! Stand up and dance!”
Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church (ELCA). Twitter: @LeahSchade Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LeahDSchade/.