The Song of Simeon

Simeon’s Song of Praise
Aert de Gelder, c. 1700

Luke 2:21-32

Eight days later, the time came to circumcise the baby, and he was given the name Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived.

Then, after their purification had been completed in accordance with the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as prescribed in the law of the Lord, “Every first-born male shall be deemed to belong to the Lord”); and also to make the offering as stated in the law of the Lord: “A pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons.”

There was at that time Jerusalem a man called Simeon.  This man was upright and devout, one who watched and waited for the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  It had been disclosed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  Guided by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary under the Law, Simeon took him in his arms, praised God, and said:

Lord, you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised;
for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people Israel.

What was the meaning of the turtle-doves? *

The shepherds come

Adoration of the Shepherds
Albrecht Dürer, c. 1510

Now in this same district there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch through the night over their flock, when suddenly there stood before them an angel of the Lord, and the splendor of the Lord shone round them.  They were terror-struck, but the angel said, “Do not be afraid; I have good news for you; there is great joy coming to the whole people.  Today in the city of David a deliverer has been born to you — the Lord’s Messiah. And this is your sign: you will find a baby lying all wrapped up, in a manger.”

All at once there was with the angel a great company of the heavenly host, singing the praises of God:

Glory to God in highest heaven,
And on earth peace for those on whom God’s favor rests.

After the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Come, we must go straight to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”  So they went with all speed and found their way to Mary and Joseph; and the baby was lying in the manger.  When they saw him, they recounted what they had been told about this child; and all who heard were astonished at what the shepherds said.  But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered over them.

Meanwhile the shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for what they had heard and seen; it had all happened as they had been told.

Who were these shepherds? *

* Shepherds, dear to us from Christmas stories and pageants, had no social standing in ancient Israel.  They were very poor, and they were also “unclean”.  All shepherds get dirty caring for their sheep; but shepherds in Judaea were also unclean in the ritual sense.  Because they had neither the time nor the money to purify themselves properly, they were unable to worship in the Temple.  

The birth of Jesus

The birth of Jesus
Giotto, c. 1305

Luke 2:1-7

In those days a decree was issued by the Emperor Augustus for a general registration throughout the Roman world.  This was the first registration of its kind; it took place when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  For this purpose everyone made his way to his own town; and so Joseph went up to Judaea from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to be registered at the city of David, called Bethlehem, because he was of the house of David by descent; and with him went Mary who was betrothed to him.  She was pregnant, and while they were there the time came for her child to be born, and she gave birth to her son, her first-born.  She wrapped him round and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them to stay in the inn.

What was the general registration? *


* What was the general registration?

Every 14 years, for taxation and military service, Rome conducted a census throughout the empire.  Copies of Roman census documents have been recovered from archeological sites in Egypt, covering the years from 20 to 270 CE. Following the 14-year pattern, the census Luke reports would have been taken in 8 BCE.

Zechariah’s Song

And you, my child, you shall be called the Prophet of the Highest.
for you will be the Lord’s forerunner, to prepare his way….

Zechariah, the baby’s father, was filled with the Holy Spirit and uttered this prophecy:

Blessed be the God of Israel!
For he has turned to his people, saved them, and set them free,
and has raised up a deliverer of victorious power
from the house of his servant David.

So he promised: age after age he proclaimed
by the lips of his holy prophets,
that he would deliver us from our enemies,
out of the hands of all who hate us;
that he would deal mercifully with our forebears,
calling to mind his solemn covenant.

Such was the oath he swore to our father Abraham,
to rescue us from enemy hands,
and grant us, free from fear, to worship him
with a holy worship, with uprightness of heart,
in his presence, our whole life long.

And you, my child, you shall be called Prophet of the Highest,
for you will be the Lord’s forerunner, to prepare his way
and lead his people to salvation through knowledge of him,
by the forgiveness of their sins.

For in the tender compassion of our God
the morning sun from heaven will rise upon us,
to shine on those who live in darkness, under the cloud of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Why is Zechariah’s song called “the Benedictus”? *

Thoughts on parenting — Donna Ross

As Zechariah begins his song of praise he speaks to God, thanking God for bringing deliverance to the people of Israel. Now Zechariah looks down at the baby in his arms, and speaks to the baby:

And you, my child,
you shall be called the Prophet of the Highest,
for you will be the Lord’s forerunner,
to prepare his way and lead his people to salvation….

All children have the God-given potential to change the lives of those around them. As we look into the faces of our new babies and give God thanks, can we — like Zechariah — also look into their hidden futures and see the gifts they will share with others? Do we dare to look into their future and see also their struggles, the dangers they will face, even their deaths?

What kind of love best prepares children for their future?

*  Why is Zechariah’s song called “the Benedictus”?

Since the earliest days of the church, this song has been chanted by monastics as the primary song or “canticle” for morning worship.  In Latin, the song begins with the words,  Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel — “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel.”

John the Baptist is born

“His Name is John”
St. John the Baptist Church, Savage, Minnesota

Luke 1:57-66:

Now the time came for Elizabeth’s child to be born, and she gave birth to a son.  When her neighbors and relatives heard what great favor the Lord had shown her, they were as delighted as she was.  Then on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father.  But his mother spoke up and said, “No!”  he is to be called John.”

“But,” they said, “there is nobody in your family who has that name.”  They inquired of his father by signs what he would like him to be called.  Zechariah asked for a writing-tablet and to the astonishment of all wrote down, “His name is John.”  Immediately his lips and tongue were freed and he began to speak, praising God.

All the neighbors were struck with awe, and everywhere in the uplands of Judaea the whole story became common talk.  All who heard it were deeply impressed and said, “What will this child become?”  For indeed the hand of the Lord was upon him.

Why did the relatives want to name John after his father? *

Thoughts on parenting — Donna Ross

Luke’s first chapter has told us a story of a miraculous conception and a momentous birth.

This aging couple has never been able to have children. So when an angel tells Zechariah that his wife will conceive and bear a child, he is understandably skeptical. Yet to their great joy Elizabeth does conceive, and when the baby is born, they name him “John” — meaning “Yahweh’s gift.”

Every child, of course, is a special gift from God. But perhaps only those who spend years trying to conceive can appreciate the joy of parents like Elizabeth and Zechariah.

Rob and I spent some years trying to conceive before we gratefully turned to an adoption agency. As our babies were placed in our arms, we gave them names that connected them to a member of their new family — a father, an uncle, an adopted grandmother.

We didn’t know at the time that it was Biblical custom to name a child after a close relative; but it’s a wise custom to connect every child to the family that loves them and gives them a home.

Who gave you your name?  Who does your name connect you to?

* Why did the relatives want to name John after his father?

It was Jewish custom to name a boy after his father, grandfather, or other close relative; the name was always given to the baby on the eighth day, the day of his circumcision. John is a shorter form of the name Jehohanan, which means Yahweh’s gift, or God is gracious.  John was the name the angel Gabriel had given to Zechariah, and John also described his parents’ gratitude for God’s gift. 




Mary’s Song

Magnificat, by the Rev. Will Gafney (21st c)

Wil Gafney is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School.

Luke 1:46-56:

And Mary said,

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord,
rejoice, rejoice, my spirit, in God my savior;
so tenderly has he looked upon his servant, humble as she is.

For, from this day forth, all generations will count me blessed,
so wonderfully has he dealt with me,
the Lord, the Mighty One.

His name is Holy; his mercy sure from generation to generation
toward those who fear him;
the deeds his own right arm has done disclose his might:
the arrogant of heart and mind he has put to rout,
he has torn imperial powers from their thrones,
but the humble have been lifted high.
The hungry he has satisfied with good things,
the rich sent empty away.

He has ranged himself at the side of Israel, his servant;
firm in his promise to our forebears,
he has not forgotten to show mercy to Abraham,
and his children’s children, for ever.

Now Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then returned home.

What was the promise God made to Abraham? *

Thoughts on parentingDonna Ross

We’ve always heard Mary’s proclamation of her joy in the “Magnificat”:

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord,
rejoice, rejoice, my spirit, in God my savior;
so tenderly has he looked upon his servant, humble as she is.
For, from this day forth, all generations will count me blessed,
so wonderfully has he dealt with me,
the Lord, the Mighty One.

But we haven’t always heard Mary’s proclamation of God’s justice:

God has torn imperial powers from their thrones,
but the humble have been lifted high.
The hungry he has satisfied with good things,
the rich sent away empty.

Mary is saying that God’s justice will turn the powers of this world upside down.

Today our nation is divided by our cries for justice and peace. For instance,

We argue about war:
should we become pacifists,
or should we intervene to protect the innocent?

We argue about racism:
should we accept that it takes time to eradicate prejudice,
or should we intervene to protect the victims of oppression?

And we argue about abortion:
should we protect the right of women to make their own choices,
or should we intervene to protect the lives of unborn children?

God calls us to work for justice and peace among all people; God calls us to respect the dignity of every human being. How can we do both?

Has our idea of justice become clouded by our focus on unborn children,
without regard to their pregnant mothers?

Has our idea of justice become clouded by our focus on women’s rights,
disregarding their unborn children?

How can we care for mothers as well as babies
(and babies as well as mothers)?

Magnificat —
Dave Baldwin

The Lord demands justice for the human race.
The song of the Virgin Mary is a call for revolution.
Fairness comes to all through God’s grace.

He brings down the proud from the highest place
to a low station that matches the scant contribution.
The Lord demands justice for the human race.

For poor souls consigned to a suffering space,
humble humankind is lifted up in restitution.
Fairness comes to all through God’s grace.

Hunger throughout the world is a moral disgrace.
Food supplies require a fair distribution.
The Lord demands justice for the human race.

The arrogant rich, in their never-ending chase
for more wealth, will learn lessons of redistribution.
Fairness comes to all through God’s grace.

Prepare to meet the Lord face to face!
Mary’s Song of Praise is a call for revolution.
The Lord demands justice for the human race.
Fairness comes to all through God’s grace.

* What was the promise God made to Abraham?

God said to Abraham, “This is my covenant with you:  You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations… I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.  I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
See Genesis 17:1-7

Mary visits Elizabeth

The Visitation
Church of the Visitation in Ein Karem, Israel

Luke 1:39-45:

About that time Mary set out and went straight to a town in the uplands of Judah.  She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth.  And when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby stirred in her womb.

Then Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried aloud, “God’s blessing is on you above all women, and his blessing is on the fruit of your womb.  Who am I, that the mother of my Lord should visit me?  I tell you, when your greeting sounded in my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy.  How happy is she who has had faith that the Lord’s promise would be fulfilled.”

Where were “the uplands” of Judah? *

Thoughts on parenting — Donna Ross

Years ago, I visited a woman a woman named Mary once every month. Indeed, Mary became one of my most treasured friends – indeed, she became my spiritual mother.

Mary was a Sister in the Roman Catholic order of Notre Dame de Namur, and had served as a teacher in East Africa. When she returned to the States, she continued serving others as a spiritual director.

A spiritual director learns to listen on many levels. There are the spoken words of the person who has come to share his or her life. There are the silent thoughts of the spiritual director herself, rising up in response to what the other person is saying. And finally, there is the voice of the Holy Spirit, who is moving in the hearts of both persons. Indeed, the Spirit has brought these two persons together — and both have come together to listen to what the Spirit has to say.

My friend Mary often compared spiritual direction to Luke’s story of the Visitation. In every visitation one person, led by the Spirit, seeks out another person to hear a word of wisdom — and then the Spirit moves between the two.

Just so, in Luke’s story Mary has been inspired to seek out Elizabeth, her older cousin; and Elizabeth, when she hears her cousin’s voice, is inspired to bless Mary and strengthen her faith in God’s leading.

Parents, whether physical or spiritual, learn to listen to their children on many levels. (There is the sharp cry of a hungry baby — will milk be comfort enough? Or will a parent’s arms give comfort even more lasting than food?)

Who in your life hears your stories, tries to hear the Spirit’s voice for you, and then offers you words of comfort and wisdom?

The baby stirs in Elizabeth’s womb
Society of the Holy Child Jesus

* What were “the uplands” of Judah?

The heart of Judah (Judaea) was the upper hill country, known as Har Yehuda (“Hills of Judaea”), extending south from the region of Bethel (at present-day Ramallah) to Beersheba and including the area of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron.

The hill country of Judea
(abandoned Palestinian homes after the 1967 war)


Good news comes to Mary

The Annunciation
Fra Angelico, 15th century

The story continues:  Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, with a message for a girl betrothed to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David; the girl’s name was Mary.

The angel went in and said to her, “Greetings, most favoured one!  The Lord is with you.”  But she was deeply troubled by what he said and wondered what this greeting might mean.  Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for God has been gracious to you; you shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall give him the name Jesus.  He will be great; he will bear the title “Son of the Most High”; the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and he will be king over Israel for ever; his reign shall never end.”

“How can this be,” said Mary, “when I have no husband?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy child to be born will be called “Son of God”.  Moreover, your kinswoman Elizabeth has herself conceived a son in her old age; and she who is reputed barren is now in her sixth month, for God’s promises can never fail.”

“Here am I,” said Mary; “I am the Lord’s servant, as you have spoken, so be it.”  Then the angel left her.

Why does this translation call Mary a “girl”? *

Thoughts on parenting Donna Ross

Many young girls, like Mary, become pregnant before they are ready to be mothers.
What should they do?  This is the question for every pregnant girl and woman without resources; it’s also a question for the rest of us: What should we do?

Is there a way for our world to care for mothers as well as babies?
(Is there a way for our world to care for babies as well as mothers?)

The Annunciation – Dave Baldwin

The angel Gabriel spoke to Mary,
“O favored one, the Lord is with you.”
The young woman was much perplexed
and pondered in her heart what to do.

Gabriel said, “Be not afraid
for you have found favor with God.
You will conceive and bear a son
and he’ll be called the son of God.”

The angel continued, “You will name
him Jesus. He’ll be called the Son
of the Most High, and the Lord will give
to him his ancestor David’s throne.

He will reign over the house of Jacob
forever—his kingdom will have no end!”
But Mary said, “How could this be
for me since I am still a virgin?”

Then Gabriel said, “The Holy Spirit
will come to you and give you a son.
Be not surprised: in her old age,
Elizabeth also conceived a son.

Remember, with God nothing is impossible.”
With a glad heart, Mary replied,
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord;
let it be with me according to your word.”

* Why does this translation call Mary a “girl”?

For centuries, most Bibles identified Mary as a “virgin”, based on the translators’ understanding of a prophecy in Isaiah (Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear
a son, and shall name him Immanuel…Isaiah 7:14)  

The Hebrew word translated as “virgin” here is almah, which can also mean “a young woman of marriageable age”, or “newly married woman.”

Around 200 BCE, as Greek became the language educated people were reading, Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek.  In Isaiah 7:14 they translated the Hebrew word almah into the Greek word parthenos (which does mean “virgin”).  This Greek translation was the “Old Testament” used by our New Testament writers, including Luke.

Good news comes to Zechariah

The Angel Appearing to Zacharias

William Blake, 1799

The story begins:  Luke 1:5-25

In the days of Herod king of Judaea there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of the priesthood called after Abijah.  His wife also was of priestly descent; her name was Elizabeth.  Both of them were upright and devout, blamelessly observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord.  But they had no children, for Elizabeth was barren, and both were well on in years.

Once, when it was the turn of his division and he was there to take part in divine service, it fell to his lot, by priestly custom, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer the incense; and the whole congregation was in prayer outside.  It was the hour of the incense-offering.  There appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right of the altar of incense.  At this sight, Zechariah was startled, and fear overcame him.  But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard: your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John.  Your heart will thrill with joy, and many will be glad that he was born; for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord.  He shall never touch wine or strong drink.  From his very birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit; and he will bring back many Israelites to the Lord their God.  He will go before him as forerunner, possessed by the spirit and power of Elijah, to reconcile father and child, to convert the rebellious to the ways of the righteous, to prepare a people that shall be fit for the Lord.”

Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure of this?  I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.”

The angel replied, “I am Gabriel, I stand in attendance upon God and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news.  But now listen; you will lose your powers of speech, and remain silent until the day when these things happen to you, because you have not believed me, though at their proper time my words will be proved true.”

Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, surprised that he was staying so long inside.  When he did come out he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had had a vision in the sanctuary.  He stood there making signs to them, and remained dumb.

When his period of duty was completed Zechariah returned home.  After this his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she lived in seclusion, thinking, “This is the Lord’s doing; now at last he has deigned to take away my reproach among men.”

What kind of priest was Zechariah? *

Thoughts on parenting — Donna Ross

How different today’s world is from Zechariah’s world! Today we know that Elizabeth may not have been “barren” after all — but it may have been Zechariah who was infertile. Today we know that babies are created when a mother’s egg unites with a father’s sperm — but in Luke’s day it was thought that the whole baby was carried in its father’s sperm, with the mother contributing a receptive womb (just as fertile soil receives the farmer’s seed).

And yet again how similar our worlds are, after all. So many couples today, just like Elizabeth and Zechariah, long for babies who never come. All babies, then and now, are miracles for their parents — and sometimes for the rest of the world, too.

Have you known a “miracle” baby?

* What kind of priest was Zechariah?

Zechariah was not one of the priests who served daily in the Jerusalem Temple, but one of a multitude of country priests who lived throughout Israel.

Every direct male descendant of the first Jewish priest, Aaron the brother of Moses, was automatically a priest. However, by the first century C.E. there were so many priests that they had been divided into 24 sections, with each section coming up to Jerusalem for two weeks a year. Even with 24 sections, there was still a surplus of priests in each section, so lots were cast for the most important jobs.

During the week when his section was serving, Zechariah drew the lot for offering incense in the sanctuary.


Luke writing his Gospel
The Arnstein Bible, c. 1172

The Gospel begins: Luke 1:1-4

The author to Theophilus:  Many writers have undertaken to draw up an account of the events that have happened among us, following the traditions handed down to us by the original eyewitnesses and servants of the Gospel.  And so I in my turn, your Excellency, as one who has gone over the whole course of these events in detail, have decided to write a connected narrative for you, so as to give you authentic knowledge about the matters of which you have been informed.
New English Bible

Who was Theophilus? *  

Donna remembers: Our journey to Lebanon

In September, 1967, we began our journey to Beirut, where Rob would teach chemistry at the American University, and where I would care for two baby boys. We also hoped to to take time to explore the eastern Mediterranean, especially the places where Jesus lived and taught (Galilee, Jerusalem, and points in between), and where Jesus’ first disciples took their electrifying message (today’s Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Italy).

Our first flight took us first from Oakland to London.  After a few days in Great Britain (and after purchasing a large pram that Mary Poppins would have loved), we flew to Paris (pram and babies in tow).  From Paris we went on to explore Florence, Rome, and Athens before finally arriving in Beirut.

To prepare for the trip, I took a brand-new copy of the New Testament and began
to mark it up – reviewing the story of Jesus and his first disciples; digging into first-century history; and finally, in the Bible’s margins, sketching maps of St. Paul’s travels around the Mediterranean.  (I still have that old New Testament, with its well-thumbed pages and penciled maps – and that’s why we’re using the translation from that old Bible, first published in 1961.)

David remembers: My journey to Vietnam

In June 1966, I met my ship USS Princeton (LPH-5) in Subic Bay, P.I., one year after I graduated from UC Berkeley. I was 24 years old. My wife of three months, Nancy, was stuck alone in a strange city, Long Beach, California. It was a time of great uncertainty.

My first real job was to be a line officer in the Navy. The war in Vietnam was in high gear. Over 500,000 troops were ordered into combat by that time.

Join the Navy and see the world? Not exactly. I saw two tours in Vietnam, from June to September 1966 and March to September 1967. Mostly, the ship stayed a few miles off the beach at the border between North and South Vietnam. Other than brief liberty calls in Okinawa, Hong Kong, Yokosuka, and Subic Bay, the Far East was all business for me.

I was in the combat zone, but my personal safety was not an issue. However, I saw a lot of body bags containing dead Marines on the hangar deck. I saw a lot of wounded Marines removed from helicopters, headed for surgery. As a communications officer, I processed hundreds of death messages to the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.

I am sorry to say my travels were not nearly as inspirational as Donna’s travels to see the holy places in the Middle East. But it was a learning experience. I learned to hate war. I despise all attempts to glorify combat and violence.

Donna adds:

It was only after we moved to Beirut that we learned the city was surrounded by refugee camps – where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had settled after escaping from ongoing wars in the “Holy Lands” (the latest just a few months before our arrival, in June 1967).

From long before Jesus’ birth to our own time, the world has never known  “holy places” without violence and war – and as Luke’s Gospel begins, all of Israel is subject to Roman domination.

* Who was Theophilus? 

Luke wrote his gospel in Greek, addressing it to a man named Θεοφιλος.  The Greek name Θεοφιλος (Theophilos) meant “friend of god”, derived from θεος (theos, god) and φιλος (philos, friend).  Theophilus was both a common name and an honorary title among learned Romans and Jews in the first century CE.  Over the centuries there have been many conjectures about who this Theophilus was, but no one knows his true identity.