A Sign That Is Disputed

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“Behold, this child is destined to cause the fall and the rise of many within Israel, and to be a sign that is disputed—indeed, a sword will cut through your very life—so that the calculations of many hearts will be revealed.”

Luke 2: 34-5

The gospel today describes the encounter of Mary, Joseph, and their infant child with Simeon and Anna. It is also, however, an encounter of traditions: the obedience of Mary and Joseph and the longing of Israel embodied in Simeon and Anna encounters, in the words of Simeon himself, the revelation that is a “light for the Gentiles, a salvation “prepared in the sight of all the peoples.” The salvation for which the people of Israel have been waiting is one that, as Isaiah foretold, has  been prepared for all peoples.

Yet the universality of the gift does not mean universal acceptance of it. In the Israel of their own time, as well as throughout human history, the gift of God will be a source of dispute, a “sword” that “will cut through” our very lives. Simeon and Anna recognize the gift immediately, apparently, as Luke frames it, because they have spent so much time in faithfully waiting.

Waiting is difficult for us, probably for the same reason that receiving what is given is so difficult. Because we have largely lost touch with our spiritual potencies, the only ways in which we feel potent and responsible in life lie in the realm of the functional. We live in the illusion of self-determination and self-realization. We do not see our life first as mysterious gift and call, but rather as a product we are to create and develop. Culturally and historically we develop a narrative of our significance and meaning, and we then attempt to control and manipulate the world in such a way as to create a life in accord with that meaning.

Simeon and Anna, on the other hand, form their lives and their religious and spiritual practices in light of their tradition (“She never left the Temple grounds.” Luke 2: 37), and yet such practice has taught them how to live in openness and responsiveness to the mysterious and unexpected ways in which God will come to them. They follow a way that is a path toward that which totally and remarkably transcends it.

The scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson offers a unique translation in verse 35 of the word dialogismos, as calculations: “the calculations of many hearts will be revealed.” He notes that except for two early exceptions in the gospel, this word is used to describe “the mental process of those actively opposed to Jesus.” For example, in 5:21: “The scribes and pharisees began to question . . . .” The “thought process” which the Gospel of Luke is describing is one familiar to our own experience. In many life situations we often find ourselves “calculating” what best serves and gratifies our personal agenda and attempting to create an outcome in accord with that calculation. This attitude, the gospel teaches, is that which is opposed to the waiting, the openness, and the hope of Simeon and Anna. We can live in a mode of docile waiting and hopeful readiness to respond, or we can devote our energies to fearfully calculating and managing life within our very small and limited boundaries.

Too often we speak of faith as that which affords a false security and illusory certainty. We make claims to possess the truth, and so become more anxious and fearful rather than free. True faith is that which waits upon life, trusting that it is God who gives and orders life. It is God whose way is to be followed, even if we can only follow it step by step, without knowing where it leads. As Cardinal Newman wrote:

The night is dark, and I am far from home;
lead thou me on.
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
the distant scene, one step enough for me.”

Lead, Kindly Light

The impact of our presence in the world, which is far too consistent over time to be excluded from any objective account of our nature, as any reader of history will know, is emerging as an urgent reality, an objective, unequivocal reality, at a point when principled ignorance of ourselves is called science. Say only that the Genesis narrative reflects no more than sad wisdom and long, if primordial, experience. It makes a kind of statement about our divided selves of which we moderns, on principle, are wholly incapable. And it tells us that we are no ordinary participants in nature, that what we do is a matter of the highest order of importance, however minor our transgressions may seem to us. [Jonathan] Edwards would say that God in his freedom can impute the sin of Adam to every human being and generation, re-creating as true what he wills, who alone creates and perpetuates all Being—that is, all that is in fact true. To me this seems a long way of saying that we are Adam, singly and together, and that the etiology of our behavior, so remarkably splendid and terrible, is to be traced directly and exclusively to our humanity. There simply is a bias toward error we share only with one another, with the beasts not at all. Recognition of this bias would surely yield humility and mutual forgiveness, if we were not so intractably human.

Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things, p. 87

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