Crossing Over

Feb 3, 2019 by

Reflection on Communion, Feb. 3, 2019    Paula Papky for MacNeill Baptist Church

Malachi 3:1-4           Psalm 84           Hebrews 2:14-18           Luke 2:22-40


I forget what I was trying to do on that day a few years ago.  Maybe I was trying to open a jar; or calculate the amounts for tripling a recipe; or negotiate a hilly path in the woods.  Whatever it was, I asked my granddaughter, Charlotte, “Why can’t I do this?”  Her response was, “It’s because you’re old, Grandma.”  We laughed.  But it wasn’t really all that funny.  After all, I can still remember the formula for changing Fahrenheit to Celsius.  I just can’t remember how to multiply fractions and balance equations.  It’s not for sissies, this business of aging.  But the story of Simeon and Anna is quite consoling.

Sunday mornings at 11:00 we come here to enact a ritual.  Our order of service is pretty much the same every week:  musical prelude, call to worship, a hymn of praise, a prayer.  And it’s as if we start to cross a bridge from an ordinary place into a holy place and time.  Sometimes we’re distracted and just not ready, when the service begins to imagine crossing into the sacred dimension.  We’re still in getting-to-church mode, the rushing, parking, climbing snow drifts, avoiding icy patches.  But as we give ourselves to the rituals of Scripture reading, singing and prayer, we may sense a transition in ourselves.  We may have glimpses of our crossing over from our world to that ancient world, from familiar experience to an experience of the holy.  It may be only a word or a phrase that creeps into our ear – say, “the sparrow may find a home and the swallow a nest to raise her young.”  For me, last Sunday it was as we sang, “I the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry…Here I am Lord, I have heard you calling in the night.”  I suddenly had goosebumps, a sure sign of experiencing awe.  The same thing happens every time we sing, “God of the sparrow, God of the whale.”  I begin to sense I am crossing over into the sacred.  It may not happen each and every week.  But sometimes it does, if we give ourselves to the familiar words and acts, and to this familiar space with it’s beautiful orange and blue windows.  The ordinary becomes the extraordinary.

Today’s Gospel text is good news for those of us lamenting our lost youth.  It features two old people chosen to recognize who this eight-day-old infant is:  none other than Israel’s long-promised Messiah.  It would seem that they were in the right place at the right time.  Simeon and Anna were always there, in the Temple in Jerusalem.  And they were engaged in rituals they and their ancestors had practiced for many years.   But this moment of familiar ritual was given new, surprising content.

Mary and Joseph and their precious son have come to the Temple for a ritual, in accordance with the law decreeing that on the eighth day, a first-born son must be circumcised and an offering given for sacrifice.  Simeon is a minor priest who’s been waiting many years to cross the bridge between hope and the fulfillment of a promise.  Luke says Simeon has been looking for the consolation of Israel.  The Holy Spirit has brought him this far in his hopeful journey, promising that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.  And in a single moment in the ritual, the Holy Spirit opens Simeon’s eyes and his heart to see something extraordinary.

Simeon is an old man, a faithful priest.  Maybe each time he has taken an eight-day-old child in his arms and blessed God for him, he has felt moved.  But this time the ritual draws from him the certainty that here is the long-promised Messiah.  And as he crosses over into that charged moment he speaks about light, a light not only for Israel but for Gentiles as well.  He is awestruck.

Light.  Now there is a word with so many associations.  It can mean insight, revelation, seeing clearly, understanding the meaning of something.  Light is a new day dawning, a new way of thinking, a way to go forward in one’s life.  Simeon is one of the first in Luke’s Gospel to see in the face of Jesus the light of the world.  What a crossing over from the ordinary to the sacred!

And now, Anna comes into this moment.  She’s a widow and very old by Ancient Middle East standards.  And to say that she is a widow is to say she has no voice.  With no husband and no son to speak for her, she has been silenced by her culture.  But the rituals that have encompassed her life are worship in the Temple and continual prayer and fasting.  In this moment of seeing the child, she crosses over into the sacred and her tongue is loosened.   She speaks.  Luke says she begins to praise God, speaking to all the faithful, all who had been yearning for meaning in their lives.

We all have rituals.  We may say grace before meals; we may sing a lullaby to help a child fall asleep.  We may say prayers at bed time.  Even a child’s offering of a dandelion bouquet is a spring ritual.  All over the world people use flowers in a ritual way, as we use daffodils on St. David’s Day.  One writer says, “You don’t have to believe in God to believe in the radiant divinity of flowers.”  She also writes that “repeated ritual builds communal identity and the individual identity of members.”  And just because it’s repeated ritual does not mean it’s boring.  Those of us who plan worship try to bring imagination into rituals.  We try to have some surprises that will reveal new meaning.  I hope this small sprig of freesia on our communion table will help direct our thoughts to the beauty of the Divine.

The words and acts at the communion table are familiar but there can still be surprises.  Was it meaningful this morning to have our youngest members set the table?  It’s some years now since Sophie stood beside me at this table and we had a script for communion, a dialogue.  We both broke the bread.  And some of you still say how moved you were.  It was the ancient ritual given richer meaning with a young girl participating.  It pointed to the equality of our members, male and female, old and young.  It felt to me like crossing over into a new experience of the sacred.

Last week’s youth leadership of our service felt like a renewal of our singing and speaking rituals of worship.  Have you ever heard such a jazzy version of Kum Ba Ya?  And some of the young people actually moved their bodies as they sang!  They came close to dancing!  We should have more of that!

Some parts of the communion ritual just cry out for singing.  Today we will sing a simple setting of “Holy, holy, holy” as we prepare our hearts to share the meal.  And you know what they say:  those who sing once pray twice.  In the coming months we will add simple musical phrases to what we normally speak in our communion liturgy.

What awaits us on this crossing over with the bread and wine?  A stronger sense of connection with one another, perhaps.  A sense that each one here matters, each has a place here.  A sense of connection with those who have gone before, the saints we call them.  A recognition that as we eat and drink at this table we become Christ’s body.  And on the other side of that bridge is the world to which we are sent, in the power of the Spirit, as God’s faithful people.  Amen.


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