Christmas is about the Child in all of us, and if you were fortunate enough to experience any part of Christmas in the company of a child, you know what sheer joy and wonder that can reveal (along with the sugar highs and melt-downs). But as today’s Gospel reading also reminds us, and in the words of a poem from the Iona Community,
“It was to older people that Jesus came
that they might know their place and learn his name,
and upset notions of whom God may choose
to change the world or celebrate good news…” (Cloth for the Cradle, p. 81)
Mary and Joseph have faithfully followed the law of Jewish tradition, and had Jesus circumcised and named when he was 8 days old. Now it is time for the ritual of purification–for Mary, actually–32 days after giving birth, so they have come to the Temple both to present their first-born son as “holy to the Lord” and to fulfill Mary’s obligation. Because they are poor, their sacrifice is “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” instead of a lamb. Their son would later offer himself as a lamb.
And there is Simeon, old and wizened, having been guided by the Holy Spirit to go into the Temple that day, for he has been “looking forward to the consolation of Israel” and been promised that he would see God’s Messiah before he died. When the young couple come in with the baby, Simeon makes his way over and takes the child in his arms, newborn skin held in wrinkled old hands. Trembling, he sings, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” His heart’s desire has been fulfilled. Simeon can now die in peace.
But from his deep wisdom, acquired over a lifetime of living and praying, he can also discern what this child will mean to his people, even to the world, let alone to his mother. “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,” he says to Mary, “and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
A wise commentator noticed the order in Simeon’s prophecy–“the falling and the rising…” It’s usually the other way around, isn’t it? “The rise and fall of the Third Reich”, the rise and fall of the stock market. We think first of rising and then of falling, but here it’s “the falling and rising…” Fr. Richard Rohr has written a wonderfully wise book called, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life. “There is much evidence on several levels,” he writes, “that there are at least two major tasks to human life. The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; [That is the task of the ‘first half’ of life, and has to do with establishing an identity, security, some measure of success.] the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold.” (P. Xiii) Rohr cites another wise guide, Bill Plotkin, who observes that “many of us learn to do our ‘survival dance,’ but we never get to our actual ‘sacred dance.’” (ibid., p. xviii)
So back to this falling and rising. Fr. Rohr suggests that it is only after we have “fallen”–suffered a loss, or a failure, or some incontrovertible disaster–that we are ready to enter the second half of life, that we are finally ready to “fall upward.” It is this sacred dance, which has learned the rules but has the wisdom to know which ones to break, this dance that is made more beautiful and compelling not by its perfection but its imperfections, that brings us eventually back “home,” home to the True Self which God had planted in us at our own “immaculate conception,” as Fr. Rohr puts it. It is to this point in the dance that both Simeon and Anna, the prophet, have come when Mary and Joseph bring their baby boy Jesus into the Temple that day.
New Year’s Day makes us aware of the passage of time–another year ended and begun, a new calendar goes up on the wall, another year date to get used to and to write on our checks or our letters. As we age, hopefully we bring new perspective to that passage of time, and we may greet it in different ways–either with despair at our aging and the aches and pains and difficulties it brings, or with gratitude and hope for the future. It is this second perspective–this gratitude and hope–that Richard Rohr would categorize as a “second half of life” kind of perspective, and, of course, these different parts of life have less to do with number of years than perspective. We have the choice to stay in the “first half” until we die. But it is a choice.
Just remember that no one can keep you from the second half of your own life except yourself [he writes]. Nothing can inhibit your second journey except your own lack of courage, patience, and imagination. Your second journey is all yours to walk or to avoid. My conviction is that some falling apart of the first journey is necessary for this to happen, so do not waste a moment of time lamenting poor parenting, lost job, failed relationship, physical handicap, gender identity, economic poverty, or even the tragedy of any kind of abuse. Pain is part of the deal. If you don’t walk into the second half of your own life, it is you who do not want it. God will always give you exactly what you truly want and desire. So make sure you desire, desire deeply, desire yourself, desire God, desire everything good, true and beautiful.
All the emptying out is only for the sake of a Great Outpouring.
God, like nature, abhors all vacuums, and rushes to fill them.” (Ibid., p. 160)
Simeon had desired with all his heart to see God’s messiah, had prayed and meditated long on that desire, and so at last as he held that unlikely messiah–that infant so full of potential–in his old arms, he knew that God had at last filled that emptying within him and so he could let go of everything, even his own life. “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace.”
Our culture is more likely to see aging as a kind of failure rather than a fulfillment, but we need to dismiss that falsehood and claim a greater wisdom. Rather than a shrinking, our aging can in fact become an expanding of the universe, as a recent issue of the journal Spirituality and Health has categorized it. In an article entitled, “Expanding Universe,” we read of “Nine Practices for Conscious Aging.” They are worth hearing and trying–
#1 is Reflect on your assumptions–Stop long enough to reflect on your worldview, beliefs, stereotypes, and assumptions. How might they be limiting you or holding you back? What do you need to change to reflect your highest values and most noble aspirations?
2. Reframe your inner talk. Take note of your critical self-talk, bringing the inner critic into more conscious awareness to help reframe these internal messages as more positive and self-compassionate. As you invite equanimity and self-compassion, wonder and awe into your daily life, even the most mundane aspects of experience can become sacred.
3. Shift your perspective. [Basically this involves taking time to turn off the television, clearing the space in your life from popular media and all those messages that our culture bombards us with.] Find opportunities to pause and ask yourself where you find joy, goodness, and connections…As philosopher Soren Kierkegaard noted, ‘Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.
4. Practice mindful attention. [This can be done through such practices as meditation, cotemplative prayer, journal-writing, mindful gardening, walks in nature, that sort of thing.] What do you need to surrender or leave behind? How can you conserve your energy for what has heart and meaning? What still needs healing or forgiveness?
5. Set intentions. Ask yourself, ‘What matters most? What values do I want to adhere to?’ [It’s good to give some thought to this, so that when times get rough and difficult decisions have to be made, you have some sort of compass.]
6. Build new habits. Challenge your brain with new learnings, explore new activities, dance often, connect with people of different generations, ask a child about his [or her]life, or do something new every day. [This is more than doing crossword puzzles, as helpful and fun as that is.] As Gandhi said, ‘Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.’
7. Find guidance. Find a skilled teacher, a study group, and/or a social network that supports your explorations. [At the church I served in Syracuse, we started a group called, “Experienced Pilgrims,” which was made up of folks in their 70’s and beyond who had been around the block a few times and wanted support as they continued to explore.]
8. Move from I to We. While aging is a personal process, conscious aging is more than a personal quest. It can infuse your life as you promote the transformation of your community. Altruism and compassion born of shared destiny, rather than duty or obligation, can emerge and add joy and purpose to your actions.
And finally, # 9. Death makes life possible. An important part of positive transformation involves a reflection on one’s own [understanding] of what happens after we die…As people grow older, as they come to face their own mortality, they can bring greater awareness to the transformative process that allows a deeper experience of their life journey.”
—Marilyn Schlitz, in Spirituality and Health, Jan-Feb. 2012, pp. 44-45
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel,” Simeon said to Mary, “and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” And there was also Anna, daughter of Phaenul, who had spent her days in the Temple, praising God. She too recognizes Jesus, and begins to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
“It was to older people that Jesus came,
that they might know their place and learn his name,
and upset notions of whom God may choose
to change the world or celebrate good news…
Like Simeon, resigned to failing power,
old age might yet become the finest hour
for those who risk false claims that they’re deranged
by saying God wants all things to be changed.
It is not in the manger Christ must stay,
forever lying helpless in the hay;
it is by older people Jesus is blessed,
who see God’s restlessness in him expressed.” [Cloth for the Cradle, p. 81]
In the first half of life, this looks like an almost silly meal–this cube of bread and tiny cup of juice–but with the eyes of the second half, we see that it is a feast of life abundant, full of grace and truth. Let us keep the feast.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark