The Advent Season invites us to revisit the ancient foundations and look forward to a new Church Year. Having been drawn for the last three days into to birth narratives of Jesus, Barbara and I were touched this morning by Simeon’s prophecy. As he takes the infant Jesus into his arms, he addresses Mary, the mother, with exalted pronouncements of the infant’s future role: “to be a light for revelation to the gentiles and the glory of (God’s) people Israel” (Luke 2:32). In the second part, Simeon foretells in more ominous language the conditions the child will encounter as his destiny unfolds: “to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against so that the thoughts of many hearts will be re revealed. And (turning to Mary, the mother) a sword will pierce your heart also” (Luke 2:34(b) – 35). What are we to hear in these words?
In a nutshell, those, who by the light of God’s revelation become aware of their own existential need to know God and themselves in truth, will humble themselves and — in the manner of Simeon’s gesture — be raised into God’s merciful love, while others in self-righteous conviction will justify themselves and be sent away empty. This “rising” and “falling” is the outcome of a curious dialectic inherent is God’s self-revelation: without revelation we are free to imagine anything we like about God and be as precise as we please. We can even claim we know this God. But when God does reveal himself, everything we have claimed about God is invalidated with high-stake consequences.
Now, those who cannot accept that they have been wrong about God and themselves are scandalized by the obstacle that invalidates their self-perception. Instead of admitting their need for transformation, the will defiantly turn the agent of revelation into a scapegoat, “a sign that will be spoken against.”
If this is what Simeon sees at the beginning of Jesus’ life, I suggest that in his prophecy he hands us a key to a re-reading of Jesus’ death. Yes, the death of Jesus was the Father’s will. But a close reading of Simeon’s prophecy raises a question about its orientation.
Was the Father’s will indeed focused on settling accounts with guilty humanity in a forensic transaction that extracted divine satisfaction from an innocent victim as substitute or was God intent, in an extraordinary act of self-surrender, on reaching into human hearts to undo their hardened ego-structures from within?
Yes, the death of his Son was indeed “necessary” in accomplishing the reign of God, but the conditions that provoked this necessity were entirely grounded in the resentful rivalry and brutal contrariness of humanity. Would not everything we know about “the light for revelation to the gentiles and the glory of Israel” have us affirm that on the cross, God allowed himself to be treated as the divine scapegoat even unto death, yet his merciful love was not changed into something else when humanity vented its violence against him without cause?