~ Luke 2:21-40 ~
If you’ve ever gone to the opera, before the curtain goes up, before the drama begins, you’ll hear a musical piece called an ‘overture’. Some of the epic movies of the 50’s had the same. I remember going to see Lawrence of Arabia and seeing the word ‘overture’ superimposed on the curtains while the music played. Many familiar classical pieces are actually overtures to long forgotten operas, like the overtures for the operas, Zampa and Poet and Peasant – operas hardly ever performed but whose overtures are instantly recognizable (OK, from Bugs Bunny cartoons).
The purpose of an overture is to give the audience little snippets of the musical themes that will be developed later in the drama. The overture is the introduction to the work, but not the work itself. The curtain goes up after the overture and then the drama begins in earnest.
In all four gospels the scene we see when the curtain goes up is Jesus getting baptized. That is where the story begins in earnest for all four gospels. But all four gospels have a prelude or prolog or overture, if you will, before they get to that baptismal scene. Now Mark has the shortest prelude – one sentence. His is kind of like many modern movies that just jump right into the action with few or no opening credits. John’s gospel has his prolog which establishes his themes of Logos and light. The other two gospels, Luke and Matthew, have what could legitimately be called ‘overtures’. These overtures are, indeed, the birth stories of Jesus. As is typical of an overture these birth stories are a set-up for the rest of the gospel story: They establish themes and provide a basic summary of what is to come. They establish a metaphorical framework for their stories, each in their own way.
Which helps explain somewhat why Luke’s and Matthew’s birth stories are so different. In some cases the differences are irreconcilable. Luke says Mary and Joseph are from Nazareth, yet Matthew says they only moved to Nazareth later on. And there are many more differences.
But there is a good reason why they are different. Even though there are some similarities between the gospel of Luke and the gospel of Matthew (they are, after all, both telling the story of the one and same Jesus) there are serious differences between them. Luke and Matthew (and Mark and John for that matter) have different agendas, different audiences, different purposes in mind in the writing of their gospels. And so they each tell the story of Jesus differently. Luke and Matthew have different objectives in their tellings of the gospel and, hence, as overtures, their birth stories are different.
So let’s look at Luke’s overture to his gospel story, as presented in today’s gospel reading, the visitation to the temple. In this story Luke introduces two characters who help highlight Luke’s thematic material for the gospel. In the persons of the old prophet, Simeon, and the old prophetess, Anna, Luke spells out his agenda.
So what is Luke’s agenda? What are the themes Luke includes in his overture that will be played out once the curtain rises? Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan, now sadly both deceased, suggest four themes in their book, The First Christmas.
One is Luke’s emphasis on women. Whereas Matthew focuses on Joseph (he barely mentions Mary), Luke zeros in on Mary and in which Joseph is never addressed directly. Often, whenever Luke references a man he balances it with a woman. Which is the case here: Simeon is certainly important to the telling of the story, but Anna gets almost equal billing. And so, throughout Luke’s gospel we see women playing a significant role in Jesus’ life and ministry. Luke’s birth story carries the kernel of an ongoing emphasis on women in the gospel as a whole.
A second theme is the emphasis on the marginalized. Not so much in this text here but certainly in Luke’s Christmas story overall this comes through. The angels visit “shepherds living in the fields” who were considered even lower than the peasant class in the Judea social order. They would certainly fit the definition of the “lowly” and the “hungry” who are extolled in Mary’s hymn, the Magnificat. And so it is throughout Luke’s gospel we see an emphasis (more than the other gospels) on the obligations of the rich to the poor, the outcasts and the marginalized. For instance, whereas Matthew has Jesus say “Blessed are the poor in spirit” Luke has just “Blessed are the poor.” Luke’s birth story sets up the theme of Jesus’ regard for the poor that is played out in detail later on.
A third emphasis is the Holy Spirit. This, it turns out, is a really important theme, for Luke not only makes a big deal about in his gospel but also in part two of his work, the Acts of the Apostles (you did know they are written by the same person, right?). Throughout the birth story the Holy Spirit comes upon many: On John, on Mary, on Elizabeth, on Zechariah, and, as in today’s story, on Simeon. Indeed, in this account there are three references to the Holy Spirit in regard to Simeon: “The Holy Spirit rested upon him,” “revealed to him by the Holy Spirit,” “Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple.” And so it is, as the curtain rises for the opening scene the Holy Spirit is prominently present as Jesus does nothing without the presence of the Holy Spirit. And then, of course, the Holy Spirit continues to be a significant factor in the telling of the birth of the church in Acts (hence, Pentecost). In his telling of the birth story Luke makes sure we realize the significance of one of the main characters in the pending drama, the Holy Spirit.
But probably the biggest theme, one shared by the other gospel writers as well, is that of light shining in the darkness. Of course, this theme works very well even at a visceral level as, if you were at the Christmas Eve services, the lighting of candles in dark while singing Silent Night attests. Luke makes the most of this imagery. Of course the most familiar is when the angels appear before the shepherds: “And the glory of the Lord shone around them.” And then “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly host, praising God and saying,
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
And on earth peace among those whom he favors
The shepherds are suffused with light and glory in the promise of peace.
Luke’s includes in his birth story three ancient and powerful hymns often referred to by their Latin titles: the Magnificat sung by Mary, the Benedictus sung by Zechariah, and the Nunc Dimittis sung here by Simeon. In the Benedictus, echoing themes prominent in the Old Testament, this theme of light shines forth:
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The Nunc Dimittis sung by the aged Jewish prophet while he holds the infant Jesus continues the theme:
Master, now you are dismissing your servant 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.
Notice that all three references make a connection between light and peace. In the telling of the story, Jesus does not only shine a light in the darkness but gives peace as well, yet not the peace the world gives. In Luke’s telling Jesus is offered up as the alternative to the peace that the world gives. They all knew what that peace was, the Pax Romana – the peace of Rome enforced with violence. Instead, Jesus’ light is for all people: a light of revelation for the Gentiles and a glory of the people of Israel. In his telling of the birth story Luke makes sure the reader knows that this light is coming.
Luke’s Christmas story calls on us to consider his themes played out in the ongoing story of Jesus. In his emphasis on women we are called to truly regard each other, male and female, with respect and equality. In his emphasis on the marginalized we are continually called to seriously regard Jesus concern for the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized, finding ways to engage in faithfully. In his emphasis on the Holy Spirit we are called to look to God’s presence for sustenance and guidance as we move into the future. And in his emphasis on light we are called to be a light shining in the darkness of our city and world.
Archbishop Oscar Romero, martyred in 1980 by the military powers of El Salvador, once said that we are called to be Easter Christians in a Good Friday world. Well, Borg and Crossan suggest that, in a similar way, “we are called to be Christmas Christians in a world that still descends into darkness.” In the Christmas story the imagery of Jesus as the light shining in the darkness is a profound message. As followers of Jesus, may we too so shine. Amen.