Aging Gracefully

When we hear that someone has aged gracefully, we nearly always think first of her or his appearance. We might say that someone who looks ten or twenty years younger than she actually is has aged gracefully, or that someone who has retained a certain nobility throughout his years has aged gracefully. If we’re not thinking about appearance, we might also say that someone who acts in a dignified way has aged gracefully.

By the standards of appearance or dignity, neither Simeon nor Anna, the two elder characters in this morning’s gospel reading, have aged gracefully. Simeon has been holding death at bay for goodness knows how many years, convinced that he would see the Messiah before he saw the grave. When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus into the temple for the presentation, Simeon, a total stranger, crosses the temple, takes the child into his own hands, and cries aloud, “At last! Now I can die in peace!” Luke says Mary and Joseph were amazed by what Simeon said, but you can imagine that they also would have been a little creeped out. “Can we please have our baby back?”

Anna doesn’t grab the child away from his parents, but she doesn’t come off any more graceful than Simeon. Sixty years living in the temple, fasting and praying? Never leaving? You can picture what the priests might have said about her. A new priest enters the temple service for the first time and after a week or two notices her day in and day out. Finally working up enough courage and tact, he asks the senior priests about this strange old woman: “Who’s she?” “O, crazy Anna,” they reply. “Just don’t get too close, and you’ll be fine.” Now, as soon as she sees Jesus, Anna runs around the temple courtyard, grabbing anyone she can find, invading their personal space in uncomfortable ways, and yelling, “The baby! The baby! Did you see the baby? Over there! The Messiah! The Messiah!” Hardly a dignified way to behave for an eighty-four-year-old, is it?

But Luke challenges us to see both Simeon and Anna as elders who have aged gracefully, because for Luke, graceful aging is not about well-coiffed appearances or dignified behavior. Anna and Simeon have aged gracefully because they have spent their lives preparing themselves to respond to God’s grace. They are quite different from the shepherds Luke tells us about just a few verses earlier in chapter 2. The shepherds’ daily routine is interrupted by an army of angels; it’s enough of a sign that even they know better than to return to their flocks as if nothing had happened. When they arrive at the manger in Bethlehem, they’ve already been primed by the angels to see Mary’s child as the Savior. That doesn’t make their joy any less real, of course, or their worship any less sincere, but it does make their response more predictable.

Anna and Simeon, on the other hand, receive no dramatic preview; they hear no heavenly choir. Instead, they have committed themselves to a life of virtue and holiness. Their lives have been marked by prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, as well as faith, hope, and love. They have become creatures of good habits, of daily activities and routines that reinforce the virtues they are cultivating: regular worship and prayer to orient their lives around God and God’s promises; fasting, to rid themselves of distractions; and concern for the poor, which is what righteous living always means in Luke’s gospel. Anna and Simeon have probably entered the temple in the same way every day for decades: giving alms to the poor on their way into the temple; performing the ritual cleansings just outside the temple; spending time inside the temple in quiet solitude and prayer; and offering a burnt offering or sacrifice as she or he could. All along the way, they hold onto their hope with great strength, to the promises of a Messiah God has made with Israel long ago.

Simeon and Anna’s preparations and holy living do not earn them the right to see Christ for who he is when Mary and Joseph bring their son to the temple. Seeing Christ for who he is remains a gift from God; that never changes. But Mary and Joseph have passed hundreds, maybe thousands of people on their way to present Jesus in the temple on his eighth day of life. No one else has recognized Jesus. No one has grabbed them in the middle of the street and said to God, “My eyes have seen your salvation!” No one else has run from person to person telling about this wondrous child. Only Anna and Simeone; only Simeon and Anna. Their lives of virtue and holiness, prayer and worship, fasting and hope, have prepared them to recognize and name aloud their Savior where everyone else has seen just a newborn baby.

I think most of us assume we’re shepherds, waiting around with our little flock until God comes along and knocks our socks off. Everything changes after that point, but up until then we can keep our heads down and mind our own business. The problem is, I’m pretty sure that’s the same attitude that everyone else had on Jesus’ eighth day as they passed Mary and Joseph on the street, or waited behind them at the temple to present their own children, or sold them their daily bread. And as time passes, we might begin to believe that God has passed us by. Or, worse still, having had our socks knocked off and our lives completely changed, we might struggle with how to live from one day to the next when angels aren’t appearing. We might even discover that, by the world’s standards, we’ve aged quite gracefully but, by Luke’s measure, we haven’t grown one bit.

Aging gracefully means committing ourselves to the kind of life Simeon and Anna lead. Leading lives of patient virtue, of prayer and worship, of fasting and hope gives us the means to respond to Christ when he appears in our midst, to see him in the faces and places everyone else passes by, and to proclaim his presence to all who pass us by. And it’s never too late to start. Don’t just sit around waiting for God to bowl you over. Look for routines and good habits, like regular worship attendance and Holy Communion, daily prayer, Scripture study with other Christians, service to the poor, and even fasting, as means of grace that will nourish in you prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and love. Not only will you one day know the joy of seeing Christ where others have missed him; you will be ready to proclaim the salvation he brings to all you encounter, a blessing for all who wait for their redemption. Amen.

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