Ordinariness and wonder after Jesus’ birth

Adoration of the Shepherds / Murillo. Simeon and Anna see Jesus

Adoration of the Shepherds / Bartolomé-Esteban Murillo, ca. 1650

In a stable in Bethlehem, Mary had a baby. She was certainly neither the first or last woman to deliver a child under less than ideal conditions. But she had an ordinary childbirth experience after an ordinary pregnancy.

She delivered no ordinary child. Mary conceived Jesus while she was still a virgin, a miracle that has happened exactly once. Angels announced Jesus’ birth to shepherds, who rushed to Bethlehem to see him.

The ordinary and the extraordinary persisted side by side throughout Jesus’ life. Luke’s gospel records both a week following his birth.

Ordinary childbirth rituals

Galatians 4:4 reminds us that Jesus was born under the law. It’s easy to forget that although the gospels are part of the New Testament, Jesus’ ministry didn’t take place under the new covenant. God made that covenant with the risen Jesus. Jesus therefore functioned as the last prophet under the Mosaic covenant. He was required to follow the law, and did so without sin.

According to Leviticus 12, the flesh of a boy baby’s foreskin was circumcised on the eighth day. The mother remained ceremonially unclean for another 33 days.

After the completion of her purification, she took her baby (whether a son or a daughter) to the priest. She presented a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or dove for a sin offering. If she couldn’t afford a lamb, the law allowed her to substitute another pigeon or dove.

Apparently, it had become customary to name a boy at the time of his circumcision. Otherwise, Luke describes how Joseph and Mary followed the law in detail. His account shows that they were poor.

When the eight days were completed for His circumcision, He was named Jesus—the name given by the angel before He was conceived. And when the days of their purification according to the law of Moses were finished, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (just as it is written in the law of the Lord: Every firstborn male will be dedicated to the Lord) and to offer a sacrifice (according to what is stated in the law of the Lord: a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons). Luke 2:21-24 HCSB

In John 10:1-2, Jesus used the image of a sheepfold. The shepherd of the sheep enters by the door. Whoever comes in any other way is a thief and a robber.

In the beginning, God created Adam and Eve from the dust of the ground. He made them as beings who would procreate sexually. In other words, the door into the world is a woman’s birth canal. Then the serpent simply showed up without introduction—to steal, kill, and destroy.

So Jesus entered the world by the door, just like any other human. How very ordinary!

Two extraordinary visitors

Simeon

Simeon receives Jesus in the temple / Vouet

Simeon Receives Jesus in the Temple [detail] / Simon Vouet, 1640-41

Luke’s account continues: While Joseph and Mary were presenting Jesus at a particular door of the temple, a man named Simeon came by, guided by the Holy Spirit.

Some readers may wonder how the Holy Spirit guides someone. It very often comes in the form of a thought a person recognizes as not his own. Perhaps Simeon hadn’t intended to go to the temple that day. Or maybe he usually went in by a different gate. But the thought that wasn’t his compelled him to change his plans.

As soon as he saw Mary holding Jesus, he took him in his own arms and spoke a prayer known by its first words in Latin: nunc dimitis.

The Holy Spirit had also told Simeon he wouldn’t die until he saw the Messiah with his own eyes. What he had seen by faith, he now saw in the flesh. While holding his savior, he prayed as God’s slave who had been assigned to watch duty. He reported that he had seen what God had sent him to watch for. In saying he was ready to be dismissed in peace, he essentially asked for permission to go off duty.

Like all the earlier prophets, and unlike any of the official Jewish leadership, he knew that through the Messiah, God had provided light for the Gentiles and glory for the nation of Israel.

Mary and Joseph knew who their baby really was. The angel Gabriel had told both of them. But here was a perfect stranger telling them the same thing. No wonder they were amazed. Then he prophesied.

The child would cause the rise and fall of many and draw opposition. 1 Peter 2:7-8 brings together two scriptures, that the stone rejected by the builders would become the chief cornerstone, and that it would be a stone of stumbling for unbelievers. We either build on Jesus and rise or trip over him and fall.

Simeon also told Mary that a sword would pierce her own soul. His words had at least two fulfillments. Mary ultimately had to stand at the foot of the cross and watch JEsus die. But before that, she spent her life lurching between faith and unbelief, between hope and fear.

Anna

Anna the prophetess / Rembrandt. Simeon and Anna see Jesus

The Prophetess Anna / Rembrandt (1639)

An old woman named Anna had lived at the temple for a long time. The Greek is a little obscure. It could say that she was 84 years old. Or it’s possible to read it that she was a widow for 84 years after seven years of marriage. Since she couldn’t have gotten married any younger than 12, the latter possibility would make her at least 103.

Luke calls her a prophetess.

Would anyone of her time call her a prophetess? I doubt it. 1 Maccabees, describing events that took place long before Anna ever lived, acknowledges in 4:46, 9:27, and 14:41 that no prophets lived at the time.

A prophet was an authorized spokesperson to whom God gave messages to deliver. If none were acknowledged at the time of the Maccabees, then certainly no human had acknowledged any in Israel since then. But it’s God who gets to decide who’s a prophet.

Luke does not tell us what Anna had to say, but from his description, it sounds like she had a message much like Simeon’s.

From then on, Jesus lived a life indistinguishable from that of any other villager of his generation. Until he started his ministry. Then he astonished and offended many with his teaching and signs. He fulfilled all the old prophecies about the suffering Messiah being killed by his own people. He died, rose again, and ascended into heaven.

He’s coming back to rule on the earth from Jerusalem, you know.


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