Luke 2:22-40 – The First Sunday of Christmas – for December 28, 2014
“When the time came for their ritual cleansing, in a accordance with the Law from Moses, they brought Jesus up to the Jerusalem…” (Luke 2:22)
He didn’t finish his sentence. Not to her. With a word or glance, she might stop him by shaming his anger or calming his fears.
Mary nodded, hugging Jesus closer to her chest.
Joseph rearranged the blanket around the infant’s face. His hands—with their map of scars, grit he could never wash out, and the stump where he lost his left little finger while a carpenter’s apprentice—gently stroked Jesus’ smooth cheeks. He also caressed his wife’s face. His wife and their newborn were so beautiful, each a gift that Joseph didn’t deserve. And yet here they were, together. Wasn’t he all that stood between the worst of the world and their dreams for the child? Well, maybe he and God would protect this miracle family, but the Almighty had secretive ways, and terrible silences.
Mary dutifully waited on the temple’s expansive courtyard. Around her, as with most days, construction continued on Herod’s pet projects. The temple, its glistening, sculpted stone reaching toward heaven, had been finished in less than two years a generation ago. But the open areas around the towering edifice were being expanded so merchants, beggars, and pilgrims had more room to bargain with or boast to each other. There were stairways everywhere. How could they all lead to different streets into the city? Jerusalem made Nazareth seem puny.
Joseph entered the temple, eyes again adjusting to the dim inner light, the flickering oil lamps and shards of bright sunlight. As before, the stench of sweat from weary humans, incense from mysterious rituals, and endless burnt offerings irritated his nostrils. To his left, a Levite chanted the Psalms. To his right, a barefoot, beardless man, taller and much younger than Joseph, stood alone. Two fat turtledoves dangled from his hand, the birds fluttering and fussing, unaware of their impending doom. Maybe the barefoot man-child was confused about what to do next, just like Joseph had been a short while before. At another time, Joseph might have assisted him.
But Joseph’s plans urged him forward, and his family waited where there was a constant crowd of pickpockets and whores.
Where was the old fool named Simeon? Had he already vanished? Or had he died? The way he’d talked to Joseph and Mary, and especially Simeon’s warnings to Mary, sounded like he neared his last breath. Or maybe he kept in the temple’s shadows, afraid of what Joseph was doing right now: hunting him. How dare Simeon say what he’d said! He wasn’t a priest, or a Pharisee. The old fool was a no account nobody. But Simeon had spoken words that hurt Mary. She’d cringed after Simeon had stumbled after her to mutter his one last thing.
There! By a pillar! Cowering in the darkness! Joseph charged across the smooth temple floor, fists clenched, eyes narrowed. Simeon didn’t see Joseph until it was too late.
The withered fig of a man retreated, until his back met the cold, dark wall. Joseph grasped Simeon’s sleeve, his carpenter’s hand tightening around the old fool’s scrawny wrist.
“Let me go,” Simeon hissed.
“Tell me what you said to my wife.”
“You’re hurting me.”
Even in the gloom, Joseph could see Simeon’s frightened eyes. They were white saucers, plates of anguish against his cracked leather skin. A hundred and more people were scattered about the interior of the temple, but there was—right now, right here—only a desperate father demanding a truth.
“What did you say?” Joseph spat out.
“I blessed you. I blessed your wife. Thanks be to God for that child. You heard me. You heard me!”
“The other. What you said just to my wife.”
Joseph leaned against Simeon. “You said something about a ‘sword.’ You threatened her. You cursed her future.”
Simeon gulped. His eyes darted left, right. “The child, your child is all that matters. I–”
“Liar. Tell me.”
Joseph towered over Simeon. His face flushed, his blood pumping, he resisted the temptation to slip his other hand around the old fool’s brittle neck. He could snap the life out of this coward as if he were a stick of dry kindling.
“All I said was your child will some day reveal the inner thoughts of many. It was nothing. I blessed him. I blessed him for some day.” Simeon nodded, unable to look away from the face of this anguished father. “I said no more.”
“I heard you say, ‘sword.’”
Simeon stopped nodding. Caught his breath. “You must have misheard me say word or maybe toward a future.’ Not sword. Not that. But nothing I say matters. Tomorrow, the day after, I’ll be gone and forgotten. Please, please sir, you’re hurting me.”
This nothing of a man would say nothing. Joseph released his grip. Stepped back. “You made her afraid. You gave no blessing. It was a curse.”
Simeon appeared to gather strength. He raised his hands and, like an acolyte, pressed the palms together. “Jesus is a gift, kind sir. Aren’t all children? Surely you can agree with that? Believe me, I merely offered a few meager words of gratitude.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Joseph abruptly hurried away, desiring to return to Mary and the child. And, if his anger increased, he feared what he might do to Simeon. Joseph’s tattered sandals slapped against the stone surface.
Simeon, squeezing his eyes shut, slumped against the wall. “I only spoke the truth to her,” he whispered. “Only the truth.”
Not all blessings were easy to speak, or to hear.
* * *
Of the hundred and more in the temple, one had witnessed Joseph approach Simeon, trapping the old man against the wall.
Anna didn’t need to know what had been said between the two, but it didn’t surprise her that the pilgrim from Nazareth left as angry as when he’d entered. Except now, with sunlight from an open door splintering his face, Anna saw that he was weeping. Still, his face relaxed as he approached the temple’s exit. He brushed away his tears. He was only a parent, a man who would help raise a child that might change the world. He was like every good father, and like no other father.
Anna managed a smile, wiping her own tears, and continued humming songs of praise.
* * *
Joseph kept to Mary’s pace on the wide dusty path. They would be in Nazareth late tomorrow, or the day after. As they walked, they chatted. He loved the music of her voice. He loved the way she gazed at their baby. He loved how she leaned into him, and how Jesus, his tiny arms moving randomly, would find Joseph’s beard and give an unexpected tug. All was well. All was good. All was joyful in his life. How could he deserve this?
But when they stopped to let Mary rest and feed Jesus, his mind returned to the gloom of the temple, to Simeon’s saucer eyes and gasping breath. To Simeon’s unwillingness to repeat what Joseph knew he had said.
A sword will pierce your innermost being too.
Joseph regretted his anger. His actions had been rooted in a parent’s dread, but that was no excuse. He just wanted to protect Mary, and to protect their baby.
But for how long could Joseph guard against the world’s casual cruelty? He inwardly shuddered as Mary finished feeding Jesus. It seemed as if a sword also pierced his soul. How could love be so painful? Why did the worst fears stain the greatest joys? Why had he known, when Simeon murmured his terrible blessing, that the old fool was right?
Joseph treasured Mary’s gestures as she nestled Jesus against her breasts, ready to carry him along their journey. Today, and only today, Joseph could guarantee—by the strength of his hands and the will of his mighty heart—that his family would be safe.
Tomorrow, though, he’d have to learn to trust God.
Tomorrow, his sight would dim and hearing falter.
Tomorrow, the child would become a man.
Tomorrow . . .
He felt the knife’s edge of love slice deeper into his soul. Joseph took Mary’s hand. They strode side by side, a family headed home.