The enactment of religious rituals for children in the Jewish faith of Jesus’ time is the background of this only biblical glimpse we have of Jesus’ early infancy. This luminous text of hope from Luke’s Gospel is pictorial in its rendering of Jesus presentation at the temple. As a newborn, he is brought by his parents to be circumcised and officially named, following the custom of their faith.
Luke’s description of Jesus’ “bris” at the age of eight days leaves an indelible tableau in our mind’s eye. Four adults are part of the scene, eager to see this child launched with due ceremony and love. We can almost see them posed on the front steps of the Temple! They are proud, happy and awed by this child. Along with Jesus’ parents, there are two other adults of deep piety, Simeon and Anna, who respond to the occasion. These two devout and faithful people are recorded as praising God. God has granted them the opportunity to witness the arrival of an infant whom they understand to be the central change agent for the cosmos.
This story of a baby’s first religious rituals prompts the memories of many adults whose own parents involved them at an early age in the practices of their faith. Luke paints a touching and very typical picture of just such an occasion. Today, even though obscured in the unknowingness of early infancy, how many adults still cherish the pictures and artifacts from their own infancy rituals? Caregivers of all sorts save a scrapbook of pictures, perhaps a special robe, a candle, a signed guestbook or maybe a picture of the banquet table of well-wishers. All of these are reminders which can still bear meaning for adults about the religious and personal commitments caregivers made for them as infants.
The child, Jesus, launched into the world, through the faithful hopes and practices of his parents and others, prompts the Gospel writer to conclude: “The child grew and became strong…”
Paradoxically this text, while focused on Jesus throughout, also records the responses of the adults around him to the child. In fact, this text poses a critical set of questions for adults who have anything to do with children, be they parents, members of religious communities or the general public.
- What expectations do we have for our children as they grow towards adulthood?
- What are our hopes for them?
- How do we utilize the resources of our faith communities to support children?
- What protection and guidance do we offer them so hopes and expectations can be realized for their flourishing?
- What responsibilities do all adults have for children, regardless of whether or not they are related to them by blood or marriage?
Luke’s words portray a picture of hope, innocence and adult concern for the infant Jesus. His words foster nostalgia and loving sentiments. This child, Jesus, has received a strong start in life. But in juxtaposing this text with some of today’s facts and realities about children, the Biblical passage slashes across our lives with one harsh notice:” Warning!”
This lectionary text marks the first day of the New Year. Nevertheless, the contemporary on-going violent abuse of children haunts its very reading. Whether one speaks of global venues or domestic ones, signifiers of this reality are heard everywhere in such phrases as “Penn State,” “sex tourism,” and “child trafficking.” Recent analysis of the fashion in which all fifty states in America are enforcing existing laws to protect children yields a dismal picture of how adults are not protecting children.
Luke’s words have at their center a child: surely a prompt to everyone to consider the treatment of children today. What does it mean to cherish and value children? Several years ago a proverbial phrase was popularized through a speech; “It takes a village to raise a child.” How true in the best sense of that phrase. And yet, there is ready and ugly evidence that communities of varied sorts are devoted to the destruction of children, particularly through sexual trafficking. One witnesses this in the print and electronic media and in the reports about those who have been caught vandalizing the souls and bodies of children. Indeed, the incredible commodifying of children’s lives and bodies can be seen on the streets and hidden rooms of both large urban centers and smaller towns throughout America.
This destruction of children through sexual trafficking stands in absolute contrast to the Lucan story of the nourishing and flourishing of children. Children’s bodies instead of being blessed and protected are bought and sold by adults. These adults seek only to gain obscure and profit from them.
In the words and acts of the devout adults who bless Jesus, Luke offers an unsettling warning of his own about this child, Jesus. Simeon notes to Mary, his mother, that her child will cause “the rising and falling” of many. What will happen to her son will cause her own heart to be pierced as though by a sword. Furthermore, Anna’s act of endurance involves fasting. Fasting does not signify feasting. To the contrary it signifies that there are things yet to be accomplished and fulfilled. Anna was also keenly aware of the need for the coming redemption. The child, Jesus, exemplified that for her.
Within this text of love and support for a child, we unmistakably hear the note of justice sounded clearly. Indeed the rising and falling of many has and will occur in terms of their treatment of children. Luke’s words have set both the model of parental and adult love for children and they also challenge all adults to ask: “How are we caring for our children today?”
Susan K. Hedahl has taught preaching for the past twenty years. She is the Herman G. Stuempfle Chair of Proclamation of the Word at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.