by Daniel Harrell
It’s one thing to get all you ever wanted for Christmas. It’s quite another thing to get what you never wanted. To guard against any danger of the latter, my wife’s family practices the helpful tradition of detailing their wish lists with the exact specification and locations of each present each person wants for Christmas. It makes for a very stress-free holiday on both the giving and receiving ends. There are no surprises and therefore no disappointments. To my side of the family, however, such safe practicality takes away the intrigue of gift-giving. You see, my family tradition places high value on insight and thoughtfulness. It’s one thing to get somebody the perfect gift because they told you exactly what to get. It’squite another to know someone so well that you can figure it all by yourself. It is more risky, I know. It requires that you actually pay attention to the people in your family. That you understand their needs. That you know what makes them happy. That you truly care about them enough to pick up on the little things. That’s is why I give cash.
However some years I do try to pay attention. One year in particular, some months before Christmas, Dawn and I attended a family funeral and took turns viewing the open casket. It was chock full of mementoes that would accompany our dearly departed into glory: a favorite tie, a baseball cap, a military medal. Afterwards, reflecting upon her own mortality, my wife Dawn—who is Scottish on both sides of her family and an avid fan of Tolkien and Norse mythology—mentioned, off-handedly, how when it came her time to go, she’d like to be buried holding a sword. Immediately I thought: Jingle bells! What a perfect opportunity to demonstrate to my beloved how well I understand her! How attuned I am to her needs! How well I know what she really wants! How I pick up on the little things. I raced online and Googled broadswords and lo and behold, eBay was stocked to the hilt. I found the perfect Christmas present.
Granted, it was a little hard to wrap and disguise under the tree, but I managed to pull it off. Christmas morning came and Dawn tried to guess what it was. She thought maybe an extension for the vacuum cleaner? Or an ironing board? Something sexy like that. She was in for such a surprise! She eagerly unwrapped it—unsheathed it I should say—and oh that look in her eyes! I could tell she was thrilled. She hardly knew what to say. “A sword. You bought me a sword. Why did you buy me a sword?” And I said, “remember how you mentioned that when you died you wanted to be buried holding a sword? Now you have one!” “Well, thank you, dear,” she said. “I guess it is good to get those funeral arrangements out of the way early. What a shame Santa couldn’t get a casket down the chimney too.” “Oh, don’t be silly,” I said. We don’t―have―a―chimney. Wait a minute. Was she being sarcastic? Nah. She loved it. I could tell. She couldn’t sleep for nights afterwards. She’d just lie there in bed with her eyes wide open clutching that sword in her hand, staring at me with just a little worry on her face. I could tell she was excited. She was so excited that she could hardly eat. She refused to put a single morsel of anything I cooked in her mouth for the next several weeks. She wouldn’t ride with me in the car either. Though come to think of it, that was a little weird.
I wonder how Mary felt when the magi rolled out that third gift of myrrh on the first Christmas. Gold and frankincense made sense. Both were gifts fit for a king—gold was a symbol of royalty and incense the aroma of power. Myrrh, on the other hand, was mostly used to anoint dead bodies. In a day before funeral homes, preservatives and caskets, myrrh kept corpses from stinking. Why kind of present was this to bring to a baby? What would you do if as a mother someone showed up bearing embalming fluid? Why not just give Mary a sword too?
Actually, that gift would arrive a few days later, in the gospel passage we read tonight. Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple to be presented to the Lord as the Torah commanded of all first born sons. The gospel describes how “the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses.” According to Jewish law, a woman became ceremonially unclean on the birth of a child. On the eighth day, sons were circumcised, after which a mother had to wait another 33 days before she could enter the Temple and return to worship (66 days if the child was a girl). While modern sensibilities tend to be affronted by such gender restrictions, it might be helpful to know that being unclean meant you weren’t allowed to cook or do any housework either. When the time for purification was over, the mother came back to the Temple and offered a sacrifice, either a lamb or, if she was poor as in Mary’s case, two doves or two young pigeons. The point here is to show that Jesus was raised in conformity to the law and that his parents obeyed the Lord. As told by an angel, they named him Jesus, which means “God saves.”
Overhearing all of this was a righteous and devout man named Simeon, whom the Holy Spirit guided to the Temple, and who upon seeing Jesus, recognized the baby to be the Savior he’d been waiting for his whole life. He grabbed the baby into his arms and let loose a joyous Christmas carol of praise to the Lord. “Now I can die in peace,” he happily sighed. “I have seen my salvation, which you have prepared for all people. Light to reveal God to all nations! The glory of your people Israel!” Talk about proud parents. I imagine Mary and Joseph beamed with delight as they heard Simeon sing. How many times do strangers look at your infant baby and call him the light of the world?
If you’ve been a regular here at Colonial Church of late, you know that light has been our theme since September. And it’s a big theme at Christmas. Candles and lights glow everywhere during the darkest days of the year, intended to instill hope and promise of brighter light to come. In the Bible, prophets promised how people walking in darkness would see a great light. In the Isaiah passage we read, and which Simeon echoed, light is the calling card of God’s promised Savior: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Simeon knew this about Jesus. Jesus knew this about himself. “I am the light of the world” he would boldly declare, though it was an audacious assertion for anybody to make, especially in first century Israel. For first century Jews, light was the realm reserved for God alone. “Let there be light,” announced at creation, which was practically the same as God saying “let there be me.” To call yourself light was to call yourself God. No wonder Jesus offended so many.
Simeon knew this would happen. He told Mary and Joseph how Jesus would bring joy to many, but he would also cause many to fall. Though a sign sent from God, he would be opposed. Jesus knew this too. “Light came to the world,” he said, speaking of himself, “but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Light cuts like a double edged sword. It shines as a sure sign of God’s salvation, but it’s sharp brightness also exposes our weaknesses and our need for salvation. It can be pretty painful.
That light can cut like a sword comes as no surprise to Star Wars fans in the room tonight. I remember wishing for a light saber one Christmas when I was in college. What I got instead was an actual saber. Unlike the one I gave Dawn, mine was for the fencing team. Phys Ed was required at my University, and not being especially athletic, I decided to take a stab at fencing. I did fairly good. I quickly picked up the footwork, learned to parry and riposte and lunge. Since the class turned out to be mostly filled with fantasy-fiction lovers, sci-fi geeks, Shakespeare aficionados and math majors, I ended up winning our class tournament. I cut down all my opponents just like a Skywalker. The teacher, who was also the fencing team coach, suggested I try out for the university squad, which I did.
And I got picked. I made the team and worked out with the scholarship fencers, one of whom I defeated in a training bout. Clearly I had this thing all figured out. At the rate I was going, I could feel a future Olympic gold medal tickling my neck. Noting my progress, and no doubt my progressing cockiness, the coach called me aside one day and told me to take off my padded fencing jacket. Unlike the foil and the epee, a saber is a cutting weapon. You score by slicing your opponent with your blade anywhere above the waist. The padded jacket protected you from being injured, so I wasn’t sure why the coach wanted me to take mine off. It was a drill, he said, an exercise in discipline designed to improve my defense. A few seconds and several nasty whelps later, it proved to be an exercise in humiliation, exposing my weakness and drilling into my head how a few lucky strikes did not a gold medal forge. It was very painful. Both to my body and to my pride. The truth does hurt.
In the Isaiah passage we read, truth is likened to a sword. In describing the Savior to come, Isaiah says, “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth”—meaning his words—“like a sharp sword.” Simeon knew this about Jesus. “The child is ... a sign from God that will be opposed, his words will cut to their hearts “and reveal their secret thoughts.” Jesus understood this about himself. “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth,” he warned, despite the Christmas angels’ greeting. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Jesus would be the light saber of the world, speaking truth, exposing human pride, causing conflict and creating division. “Light came to the world,” he said, “but people loved darkness more than light because their deeds were evil.” The truth does hurt.
It hurt Mary and it hurt Jesus too. Simeon turned to Mary and told her, “a sword will pierce your own soul.” Mary and Jesus would both suffer profound anguish: Mary at the loss of her son. Jesus at the sacrifice of his life. Simeon foreshadows the cross, a violent sword which in ancient Roman culture served to keep a petulant public in line. The Empire designed it as a brutal reprisal against any rebellion. Crosses were very common, a clear warning against those who might threaten the government’s power. Nothing good that could be affirmed about crosses; they were designed to extinguish life in a most horrifying fashion. The cross represents the culmination of human history gone wrong—an instrument of torture standing for all the other dead ends of history, from spears to bombs, from gas chambers to semi-automatic assault rifles. If “the hopes and fears of all the years” were met in Jesus birth, they would shatter at Jesus’ unjust death. Hung on a cross, an innocent victim, Jesus suffered the full weight of human rebellion―not against Rome―but against God. Jesus fell on our sword for our sins.
Afterwards, as if there weren’t enough indignity, no suitable place could be found to bury him, just as there had been no suitable place for Jesus to be born. As with the spare manger, a sympathetic Pharisee from Arimathea offered up a spare burial tomb. Another sympathetic Pharisee rounded up some myrrh. The Magi had seen it coming. Simeon saw it too. A sword of execution and shame pierced Jesus. A sword of deep sorrow pierced Mary’s heart. What mother should ever endure the death of her child? It’s a question we’ve asked too often in recent days. In the wake of the senseless slaughter of innocents, we sadly affirm Jesus’ judgment: “people loved darkness more than light because their deeds were evil.”
A pastor in Newtown, Connecticut, his church decked out for the holidays, stood before a full and grieving congregation, and solemnly asked “how can we rejoice in the face of such suffering?” It was a rhetorical question. Everyone already knew the answer. It was why they brought their sorrows to church instead of taking them somewhere else: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.” “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.” “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
This is the startling paradox we defiantly celebrate at Christmas: The sorrow and suffering endemic to our world and to the Christian story finds miraculous redemption. Light shines in darkness. Born into scandal, unjustly crucified dead and buried in disgrace, Jesus rises from the dead. He rises and redeems an ancient apparatus of heartless torture into the ultimate symbol of hope. The dark visage of the cross becomes the light of salvation. The sword that pierced Mary’s heart becomes the blade of triumph and glory, girded on the thigh of our risen king who achieves his victory by way of defeat. No longer wielded as a weapon of destruction, his sword serves “the cause of truth and righteousness,” just as the Psalmist sang.
“I came to earth with a sword,” Jesus said. A painful sword that pierced us too. It’s sharpness exposes our sin and our need for salvation. Christ’s death is our death. The truth hurts. But as Jesus also said, the truth sets us free. His resurrection is our new birth. The full weight of our rebellion meets the full weight of God’s grace. As we sing tonight: “born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them―to give us―second birth.” A new birth, a new beginning, a new chance, a new life, a new start―starting now: It’s all anybody could ever want for Christmas. And with Jesus, all you could ever want is what you always get.