Appearances can be misleading.
Case in point, a 400-year-old painting on wood of John the Baptist. The painting, which was housed in the Bowes Museum in England, had suffered some deterioration. Before a plan for restorative work could be begun, x-rays were taken to determine the extent of the damage to the wood beneath the paint. What was discovered has been called a “Christmas miracle.” The x-rays revealed another painting that no one knew was there because it had been painted over with the image of John the Baptist.
The concealed painting-underneath-a-painting contained the figures of an angel, a woman, and a man with his arms outstretched as though he was offering a gift. At the center was the outline of a baby; its head surrounded by a golden halo.
It was a nativity scene!
One short week after the actual nativity finds the Holy Family occupied with the same religious obligations as any other parents of any other Jewish child. So, on the eighth day, Jesus was circumcised, according to the religious Law. He was then brought by Mary and Joseph to the Temple in Jerusalem for his dedication to the Lord, which the Law of Moses prescribed for all first-born Jewish males. After all the strange visits by angels, shepherds, and wise men, as well as the other extraordinary events surrounding their son’s birth, it seemed that life might finally be settling down into the familiar rhythms and rituals that other, normal families experienced.
That that hope swiftly disappeared when they ran into Simeon and Anna in the Temple. Anna and Simeon were two elderly, devout people. Like so many in Israel, they hoped and longed all their long lives for the Messiah to come and fulfill God’s promises to God’s people. Maybe, they spent their days hanging around the Temple so that they could check out each first-born son brought there for his dedication, hoping that one day they would be the first to welcome the deliverer of their people when he arrived.
Luke’s Gospel tells us that Simeon had been assured by the Holy Spirit that he wouldn’t die before he saw the Messiah with his own eyes. So, he stationed himself there in the Temple, watching the babies being brought there for their Dedication, and waiting for the sign that would tell him which one was THE ONE. Who knows how many babies had passed beneath his watchful gaze as he awaited the fulfillment of that promise?
When he laid his tired old eyes on the infant Jesus though, Simeon had the insight to recognize what he had been waiting for all this time. He took Jesus in his arms and he knew that what he held might look to anyone else like “just a baby”, but what he was seeing was the salvation of God. Not just for himself and not just for Israel, but for all people of the world.
What we see on the surface when we look at someone or something, is seldom all there is to know about them. Old Simeon seemed to have had a kind of x-ray vision; an ability to see more than a baby in his arms when he held Jesus. His heart saw what his eyes could not; to see within and beyond this baby to the deliverance and redemption that God would accomplish through him.
So, Simeon is a good example for us of someone who sees with his heart and soul and mind; not just with his eyes. It’s as if he felt the presence of God’s promise about to be fulfilled.
I wonder if he whispered a word of welcome to the baby Jesus, not only for himself, but on behalf of all the generations who had come and gone without getting to see what he now saw. Something like, “Welcome little one, we’ve been waiting for you.”
Anna, too, has the gift of x-ray insight. After seeing Jesus, she begins praising God and telling everyone who will listen all about the great thing God was doing in their midst; the great thing she, and they, had waited for so faithfully.
I don’t know what that “Christmas Miracle” artist was thinking when he painted over a picture of Jesus’ birth. But I believe we all are tempted to paint over the portrait of the Jesus we find in scripture, who calls us to radical changes in ourselves and our world, with a picture of someone with not so big expectations and plans for our lives.
Maybe we could use a little of that x-ray insight that Simeon and Anna had, so that we can see beyond the way things are, to discern the unfolding of God’s plan for the way things are meant to be. With a little practice we could begin to see other people – even people we don’t find it easy to care about – as God sees them; as God’s beloved children, and our brothers and sisters. We might even see where we fit in God’s redemptive plan for humanity, when before all we saw was our limitations and shortcomings. We could use some of that x-ray insight to envision what God is doing in this church now, and what is yet to come.
As a new year beckons, it is the perfect time for looking back and looking forward. And 2020 is the perfect year to think about what kind of vision is guiding us into a new tomorrow. So that someday–maybe when you and I are elder saints like Simeon and Anna, or even long after we have gone to rest in the arms of God–people who walk through these doors will hear the story of how we, in these days, gazed into God’s dream for a better future and acted to build up this church to be temple of warm and extravagant welcome, a place of justice and love, a sanctuary of openness and affirmation.
A place where they will hear, not only with their ears but with their hearts, “Welcome! We’ve been waiting for you.”
Copyright 2019 Raymond Medeiros