The first time I was asked to take on the role of acolyte was on Christmas Eve when I was 12. My family was often assigned as the ushers for that service at my church and it made sense for me to light the candles as a part of the service. I don’t remember what was preached about or what the theme of the service was.
But there is a moment I definitely remember—at the beginning of the service right after the welcome, during the opening song, I was supposed to have my moment and light the Christ candle. Let me lay this out for you a little more plainly—I am currently 5’3” at my full-grown height and my 6-year-old son is quickly catching up to me height-wise. So when I was 12, I was tiny! I don’t remember exactly how tall I was I just remember that I had trouble holding that candle-lighter and reaching the top of the Christ candle.
So at the appointed moment, I walked up with the congregation singing with one eye watching me, the new acolyte, supposed to have this moment of light and joy and coordinated effort to symbolize Christ coming into our midst. And wouldn’t you know it. I couldn’t get the thing lit!
I tried as verse after verse passed by, I stood on my tip-toes and reached as high as I could but still nothing. Finally, someone did something about it—not one of my family members who were ushering, but another church member. Someone who I have to admit intimidated me as a child. He was a local lawyer with a big personality and sometimes a bit gruff with others, but that night he came to my rescue.
As gently and stealthily as he could, he came to help me light that candle, smiled at me and returned to the back of the sanctuary. Mr. Reiff showed me that night that church doesn’t have to be perfect and in fact I think that is the way that Christ’s light actually comes into our world- through gentle unexpected care for another in the most human of moments. Looking back on it now, I may have been embarrassed at the time, but I am kind of glad it happened that way- as a pastor there are so many things that often go wrong with a worship service—but we still worship God in spite of our mistakes and the messiness often serves to remind us of the amazing-ness of God’s grace.
The Humility of Simeon
The stories of Simeon and Anna tell us that not only was Jesus born into the expectation and love of his parents and his family, but that there was a whole community waiting and hoping to surround him with care. We are told that Simeon was up there in age, a good man who was filled with the Holy Spirit. But instead of worrying about his own legacy and what kind of reputation he might leave behind, Simeon was waiting for God’s will for the world, God’s promise for God’s people to be fulfilled. His goodness is seen not only in the way he treated others, but also in his humility about himself. He knew that ultimately the people of Israel were waiting not for him, but for a savior. Even more interesting, is the expansive nature of Simeon’s understanding. That looking into the eyes of Jesus, a 1-month-old baby, he saw that God’s will was not only for the Jewish people to be saved, but the whole world—for Jews and Gentiles alike.
Simeon’s gift to us is in part to remember to wait like that. To wait for redemption with humility and hope. To keep pointing with our lives to the one who is greater than ourselves. To know that God saves us and God saves all.
The warm feelings of Christmas felt a bit different this year. Whether you saw loved ones, or didn’t, if you were feeling grief or weariness or rejoicing, if you were all of us hoping this pandemic would be over by now, even while celebrating the vaccine. Simeon reminds us that at an unknown time, in an unexpected way, we may look into the face of Jesus Christ and know our redemption is near- not only for ourselves but for the whole world. It might come at Christmas, or it might come when you least expect it. Simeon describes it as a sword piercing our hearts, which let’s face it is a pretty graphic image. But Simeon’s words certainly gets the point across that Jesus, the Christ child will change everything right down to our very souls. That’s what God’s grace can do- get right down through all that weariness and suffering and prick us with hope.
The Hope of Anna
And Anna—how interesting that Luke included her, too.
Even though Simeon already represents so much for us about the community, about expectation and what God’s grace can do, we hear more from Anna about who Jesus can be for us. Anna is described from the get-go as a faithful woman, devoted to God and someone who had suffered grief in her life being a long-time widow. She was always in the temple praying and fasting and talking to anyone who would listen about God’s redemption through a coming Messiah.
Was she one of those church folks who you would greet with joy when you got there or would you want to avoid her because she was always going on and on about the Messiah? One commentary reminds us that most folks at this time weren’t really waiting for the Messiah with anticipation anymore. Most people had moved on and were worried more about getting ahead and their day to day lives. But for Anna, life was all about waiting for the one God would send into this world to redeem it all. She stayed at the temple we are told, spending her time praying and waiting with faith.
The inclusion of this dear woman, shows us that God’s grace through Jesus Christ is truly for all—whatever our gender, age, or state of mind—God sends Jesus to save us all.
Sharing the Good News
And knowing what God does for us through Jesus Christ? Our worshipping community remains to figure out how to respond. Because we are charged with sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with our words, our actions and our lives. Christmas felt different this year, we didn’t get to gather together in the sanctuary and physically see the candle light fill the space. Instead we found new ways to worship, to gather, to celebrate the birth of Christ among us. But the most amazing part of this holiday season for me, was seeing how the church, our church family, was still serving others, inviting and welcoming. The best part was how we were still being the church even though we weren’t gathering in person.
It is hard. It is harder to be the church when we don’t have that weekly gathering of our church family in person to surround us. Worship is supposed to help sustain us for the lives of spreading the good news. Lutheran worship is designed to gather us in, repent together, pray together, sing together, be filled with the word together and then to be sent out together to do God’s work in the world. It is hard when we can’t physically see one another each week, but that doesn’t mean we have stopped being a church.
Waiting and Connecting, with Hope
Simeon and Anna waited years to see the fullness of God’s will to be done. They help us understand what we are to do when we are apart. Sometimes we have moments when we feel so connected to God, maybe it is like we are holding the Christ child right there in our arms—like Simeon, we can’t help but be awed and feel that feeling that all is right in the world. Other times, being a Christian can feel like we are Anna, telling anyone and everyone about God’s grace—not sure if anyone is even listening, but hoping anyway.
That is who baby Jesus inspires, that is who Jesus was born for—for us. The ones who wait with hope and the ones who keep telling the story. The ones who have experienced life’s ups and downs and keep living God’s love anyway. We are still apart, but we are getting closer to the moment when we can be inside our church buildings together again. I know that we will celebrate that day and all the traditions we miss.
But I also hope we don’t forget about how we kept going this past year. How we kept giving, how we kept loving, how we kept God’s love alive in our community.
When I have received notes this year, or email words of encouragement from members, each one has helped me remember that we are still at work together and that we can keep going on in the name of Jesus Christ. Just like my first Christmas Eve as an acolyte, it gives me so much hope to know that when I am having trouble with Christ’s light, there are other disciples waiting in the wings ready to help me share the light of God with the world.
May God pierce our souls with the gift of grace that it lives so freely inside us that we can’t stop loving, forgiving, serving and welcoming in the name of Christ.