Leaving Bethlehem – Luke 2:21-40 

By Shirley Bowen

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There are 2 extraordinary happenings in the Gospel reading. First, the naming of Jesus and second, the recognition of who and what Jesus is by Simeon and Anna. 

Jesus is “the name given by the angel Gabriel to Mary before he was conceived in the womb.” Jesus was a very common Hebrew name, both centuries before and long after Mary called her firstborn child by this name. Jesus is the same as the names Joshua, Hosea, and Isaiah, meaning “God saves” or “God is salvation.”

In Hebrew thought, a name signifies the essence of someone. Yehoshua, “God saves,” was not merely what people called Jesus; rather, God’s salvation was to be the very meaning and purpose of his life.

We also find throughout scripture examples of God recognizing something more in the essence of someone than their name captures. God then gives the person a new name. God renamed Abram and Sarai. The name Abram meant “exalted father,” but God called him Abraham, meaning “the father of nations.” Sarai meant “quarrelsome,” but God called her Sarah, which means “princess.” God took Jacob, which means “heel grabber” and named him Isaac, meaning “the one who struggles with God.” Jesus will also call Simon, whose name means “to hear” or “to listen” by the name Cephas or Peter, both of which mean “rock.” Saul, who is the persecutor of the first followers of Jesus, will be given the Greek name Paul as he is sent to bring the Good News of God’s salvation found in Jesus to the Gentiles, who would otherwise remain left out of the coming reign of God.

Scripture tells us that naming is critical in relationship to God.

The famous passages in Isaiah 43:1-2

But now thus says the Lord,
    he who created you, O Jacob,
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.

Take those words in. “I have called you by name, you are mine.” We belong to and are protected by God.

God has been working through names for a very long time. In Genesis, he names the various components of creation—the Night, the Day, the Sky, the Seas, the living creatures. And in the Book of Numbers God says to Moses that by blessing Israel, “They shall put my name on the Israelites.” The name of God is imprinted on God’s people; their purpose and their future hinges on remembering the One for whom and by whom they are named. 

So my first question for you to ponder is: What does it mean to you to be called by name and recognized as God’s own? That’s your first homework assignment.

The second extraordinary event happened when Jesus was presented at the Temple and was recognized as the one whom the prophets predicted as Messiah. The first recognitions we heard about were the shepherds and then the Magi when they arrived. That story isn’t told in the church lectionary this year. But it’s important to remember. There were several instances of recognition of the true nature of Jesus throughout his life and ministry. 

This story of Simeon and Anna may seem to stretch credibility, but I would hazard a guess we have all had moments where we have seen something we can only describe as a holy moment. Perhaps you have witnessed an episode of unbelievable courage, like firefighters and law enforcement putting themselves at risk to help others. Or maybe you had the opportunity to witness a powerful act of generosity or compassion. You might say, that’s not the same as Simeon and Anna recognizing Jesus. But I would say that it is. What is missing is the understanding that you have just encountered Jesus.

In the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Church, we make a pledge to “seek and serve Christ in all people.” Our marching orders are to intentionally look for Christ in everyone we encounter – even those who we struggle to see, even those whose behavior is ugly or violent – because there is no one, no one that we see who is not loved by God. 

And there is perhaps an equally challenging type of recognition necessary. One of my favorite authors on practical Christianity, Ted Loder, tells a beautiful story of a time when he was meeting his daughter for dinner while he was visiting the city where she lived. It took place in the Christmas season. He was walking through South Philadelphia where folks with lower or no income lived, in row houses or on the street. One of the row houses he passed had an unusually large front window and in that window was a nativity scene for everyone to see as they passed. It was large, with the figures and animals being around 3 ft. tall and were lit from the inside, so easy for everyone to see. 

When he walked by the first time he was impressed, but as he approached the window again on his way back to his car, he was stopped in his tracks. He realized that there was no manger, and all the angels, shepherds, animals, Wise Men and Mary & Joseph were looking out the window to the place he was standing. An insight hit him! The street is the manger! Every passerby is seen by the nativity figures as Jesus. And if you have experienced looking at a glass with the right kind of lighting you know you can see your reflection as well or better than what is behind the glass. He recognized that at that moment, he was Jesus in the manger. And everyone who stopped by would be invited to experience the same. 

The people who created that manger wanted to show all who stopped that they are standing in the manger – that they are, in that moment, seeing themselves as Jesus. For most of us, that’s a hard lesson. Even when we find we are able to see Christ in others, it can be hard to see him in ourselves. We know all of our flaws and mistakes and regrets, and yet we must seek Jesus in ourselves also. Remember the commandment. In addition to loving God, we must love our neighbors as ourselves. We can’t do one without the other.

 So, your second homework assignment is to be intentional for this next week to see Christ in everyone you encounter. And, to stand in front of a mirror at least a couple of times this week until you can see Christ in yourself.