February 2, 2020
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Jacob was traveling back to his home country after having worked years for his father-in-law Laban. During that period he had accumulated a couple of wives, children, servants, sheep and goats. He’d learned that his brother Esau was rushing towards, him seeking revenge for all his conniving younger twin had done to him. As the day drew to a close, Jacob sent his family and possessions across the river, into harm’s way, but stayed back himself for some reason. As night fell, a man jumped out of the darkness, and they wrestled, and neither was able to prevail over the other. Then this mysterious man “touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh,” putting his hip out of joint. Jacob hung on to the man, who said, “let me go, for daylight is upon us.” But Jacob would not let go until he got a blessing from the man. The man asked him his name, and when he replied, “Jacob,” the man said, “no longer are you called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and men and prevailed.” But, asked in turn to identify himself, the man would not give up his name. Instead, without another word, he blessed Jacob, and then . . . then, there is no other man, just Jacob alone. And as day was about to break, it dawned on Jacob that his opponent was God. So, he named the place, “Peniel,” saying, “for I have seen God face to face and my life has been preserved.”
Preserved, yes, but marked for life. As the sun rose upon him, he passed “Penuel” (which means “God appeared,” apparently, the narrator’s adjustment of Jacob’s skewed perspective), “limping because of his thigh.” But inwardly this cagey negotiator had been limping all along. Now he would go limping to meet, and make amends with, Esau; and limping he would lead his family into Egypt and slavery; Israel would come limping out of Egypt under Moses, and limping enter the land under Joshua; and later Israel, first the North then the South, would go limping into exile to “the four corners of the world,” and eventually come out of exile limping back into the land. Jacob/Israel marked visibly by human weakness; and who knows what hidden scars he bore. When God appears—Peniel—people may find themselves to be less than whole, fractional. Peniel becomes Phanuēl in Greek, and finally slips unnoticed into English. The name of Anna’s father.
Simeon and Anna were prophets, or a prophet and prophetess, whose main task, it seems, was to wait. Wait for God to act on behalf of Israel. Simeon waited for the consolation, the comforting of Israel, which imagines a people, a country in mourning. Anna waited for the redemption of Jerusalem, which imagines a city, standing for a nation, in slavery. We may see this “waiting” as evidence of devout faith, expectant hope, and each character is so described. But it is also evidence of fractional, incomplete human existence. They waited for what Israel lacked, needed. And if we traced their expectancy back to Isaiah 40—“Comfort, O comfort my people,” probably more recognizably mediated to us through Handel’s Messiah—and followed the trail through the next thirteen chapters or so of that prophecy, we would find that the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem would only come through the suffering and rejection of God’s servant—embodied by Jacob/Israel (the remnant returned from exile), and eventually, in a unique twist, in Jesus himself. When God appeared in the presentation of Jesus, each of them anticipated the possibility of becoming whole, but on the cusp of this hope’s fulfillment, Simeon at least felt more acutely than ever the human need for God, for God to act, and understood the cost to be paid.
The parents of Jesus were astonished to hear their son described in such detail as “God’s salvation,” but that was his name, Yeshua, after all. Yet, its real meaning is still cloaked in the ominous addendum Simeon spoke to Mary—the child is destined to create chaos, many will fall (like those in the Isaiah tradition who stumble over the cornerstone God is laying, a rock of offense), but many (who believe in him) will rise. He will be sign of God’s faithfulness, but the people will reject the sign. And Mary will suffer anguish, her soul run through with a sword. This addition is uncanny, and Mary’s silence (there is no, “and she pondered these words in her heart”), her silence is a space for our meditation, and although she is no Jacob (thank goodness), she will also develop a limp. Somewhere up ahead a huge part of her life would be torn away. People who meet God are never the same again.
What happens when people meet God, or perhaps better, when God meets people. Isaiah, in the early part of his prophecy: “woe is me, I am lost, I am a man of unclean lips.” Peter, later in Luke’s gospel: “depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man.” An unnamed centurion, to whose house Jesus was quite willing to go: “do not trouble yourself for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” An anonymous prostitute (perhaps Mary Magdalen), says nothing, positioned behind Jesus during a banquet, but speaks volumes as she cannot stop weeping, washing Jesus feet with her tears. And at last Zacchaeus, the wealthy chief tax collector, who’d heard of Jesus and longed to see him, when he got his chance, declared: “Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded any (and he certainly had!), I will pay them back fourfold.” Absolutely unheard of. And so it goes.
The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
© 2020 Philip H. Towner