A BABY’S EYES Candlemas Sunday 31st January 2021 Luke 2:22-40
What do you see when you look into a baby’s eyes?
To be honest, it’s hard to be sure how much of what you’re seeing is actually there and how much you’re just imagining. We don’t know all we would like to know about what goes on in the mind of an infant. We can document how quickly an infant comes to recognise mother, father, grandparent, older sister or brother. We know that traumas that happen to quite tiny children leave their imprint on the adult personality.
But who can say for certain whether that serious wisdom that we sometimes sense in a tiny person is really there, or whether the baby is waiting for life’s experiences to inscribe their teachings? Nature or nurture or a combination – the debate continues.
Our gospel reading today invites us to witness an encounter between an old man and a baby. It happens in a holy place at a very solemn moment. Mary and Joseph have brought their new-born son to the great temple in Jerusalem to dedicate him to God. Jewish law decrees that a first born son belongs to God. The custom was that parents would bring their first son to the priest as if to hand him over, but instead would make an offering of two doves or pigeons for the privilege of taking him home again.
They came to the temple, and as they entered they met an old man. His name was Simeon, a holy man, righteous and devout. He spent his days waiting and fasting and praying. He was led to the Temple because he believed the ancient prophecies and that he would not die before the prophecies were fulfilled. Today folk might call the old man mad. But in his day, Simeon was honoured. People took him seriously. When he reminded them of the ancient promises, they listened. It was as though he summed up in his own being all the waiting and longing of the whole people.
Simeon stood in the Temple, at the heart of Jerusalem, with the signs of his people’s humiliation all around him, as inescapable as the parade of Roman soldiers in the street outside and he waited for the consolation of Israel.
Do you suppose it was only the infant Jesus he reached out to hold, or had it become his habit to bless all the children faithful parents brought to the Temple? It was a thing any parent would have welcomed - to have their child blessed by such a holy man. Mary and Joseph did not object. They gladly put their baby into Simeon’s arms. But it was no ordinary blessing that Jesus received. Simeon looked into the baby’s eyes and what he saw there was the answer to his prayers. He had waited and prayed for the consolation of Israel and now he held it in his arms.
So his first words were words of joy. He praised God, Luke tells us, and if you picture the old man shaken to the core of his being, with tears springing to his eyes, you won’t be far wrong. In Simeon’s song you can hear echoes of all the prophecies that had been his lifeblood during those years of waiting:
“Now, Lord, you have kept your promise and you may let your servant go in peace. With my own eyes I have seen your salvation: a light to reveal you to the Gentiles and bring glory to your people Israel.”
How much did Simeon actually see that light in the eyes of the infant Jesus and how much of what he saw was a reflection of his own longing? We will never know. All we do know is that, that song is the song he had waited his whole life to sing.
But Luke tells us that before he handed the baby back to his parents he took a longer, deeper look and what he saw there was not what he expected.
He saw a future nobody would want to contemplate. It must have been tempting not to speak, to try and protect the two young parents from knowing. But perhaps Simeon realised that Mary and Joseph could not be protected and to be forewarned is to be forearmed.
After all, they too looked into the baby’s eyes day after day; they too perhaps saw what he was seeing. He would speak the truth as he saw it.
“This child is chosen for the destruction and the salvation of many in Israel. He will be a sign which many people will oppose, and so reveal their secret thoughts. And sorrow, like a sharp sword, will break your own heart.”
And so, over the infancy of Jesus, already there is that shadow of foreboding. In that baby’s eyes was an answer to all of Israel’s longings and prayers, so vivid as to make an old man weep for joy. But the salvation promised there would not be won without a cost. There would be times when it would seem that Jesus had come, not to bring peace, but a sword. Encountering him, people would find themselves having to choose, between their old world, with everything that was familiar and a new world where they themselves might have to take up a cross.
Many people did choose to follow Jesus. It is because of their courage that we are here today. They showed us that abundant life wasn’t just a matter of pretty words, it was a reality so powerful that it still touches us now, and the invitation is open for us to join them and find out for ourselves.
But many more people rejected Jesus. His invitation to a life of new priorities challenged their security and authority; his new band of followers challenged their power. They struck out in hatred and it is just as Simeon predicted. The sharp sword of sorrow struck many people, including Jesus himself and Mary was not spared.
This story is rich in invitation. It invites us, you and me, to step into Simeon’s shoes, bringing our own longings with us and to hold that child and look into his eyes.
What do you see?
There is love there for us, and for our world: tenderness and gentleness and promise and an eagerness to forgive and accept that always exceeds our expectations. The promise of new priorities for us and our world is there, speaking to us through those eyes.
It is never too late for us to choose the way of Jesus for ourselves and the church. In the choosing we can still offer the world what it needs most - an end to selfishness, greed, hatred; a new dedication to compassion, justice and hope.
It is all there. Just look.
The Rev’d William Mounsey Candlemas 2021