The Tenth Day of Christmas: Two Old Saints Made Happy

January 4, 2014

Every once in awhile, especially at night, a thought crosses my mind that perhaps I am living the last year or two of my life. I try not to think about this too much, not because I am in denial about the dangers of my disease, but because it gets me in a place that is counterproductive. I’ll be writing more about this after Christmastide is over. But it does raise the concept of a “bucket list,” a term coined by a 2007 movie of that name, staring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. These two hospital roommates bust out of a cancer treatment center to embark upon a road trip, during which they do all those things they’ve always wanted to do.

It turns out, the bucket list is not a new idea. Luke brings this point home in poignant fashion as part of his birth narrative:

Forty days after Jesus’ birth and about a month after his circumcision, he was taken five miles from Bethlehem to the temple in Jerusalem. The occasion was the purification rites associated with post-childbirth. His parents were expected to bring the priest an offering, in their case two doves or pigeons, which they did. While there, they happened upon an old man named Simeon. He was not a priest, but he was “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:22-25). Simeon’s one life goal was to see the Lord’s Messiah, and this was the day for that aspiration to be fulfilled. When Joseph and Mary brought Jesus into the temple, Simeon (who had been guided by the Holy Spirit to come there also) saw them and scooped the baby into his arms. He recognized the One instantly, and proclaimed in the Nunc Dimittis the presence of God’s salvation, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to Israel.” Wow; the moment he had been waiting a lifetime to experience.

Simeon had prophetic gifts and uttered some disturbing words, something about a stumbling block to Israel and a deep sorrow to come. And it appears he understood that Jesus’ impact would be global, not limited to the Jews. We thank Luke for reminding us throughout his gospel that God’s salvation is intended not only for Israel but for Gentiles as well.

Later, Simeon was joined by a woman named Anna, who also was a prophet. She was an 84-year-old widow, a daily visitor to the temple for fasting and prayer. When she saw Jesus, she too praised God and pointed out that he was “the redemption of Israel.”

For both those old saints, Jesus’ infant visit to the temple made their day and fulfilled their life’s goal. Their eyes had been fixed on God for a very long time, and they were now rewarded with a sighting of God’s great plan for salvation.

It’s actually a fun thing to think about: what are those things I’ve always wanted to see or do? What projects would I like to complete? “Thinking with the end in mind,” as we were advised by Stephen Covey in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, what would we have wished we had done, and what steps can we take now in that direction? Would anything on that list be spiritual in nature? Is it realistic to wish that God would reveal to me his cosmic plan for salvation, or even that he would visit me in some special way? But certainly, I would hope that God who has begun a good work in me would complete it (Philippians 1:6).

I think it is the thing we hope for that defines us more than anything. If we hope for riches, our striving will define us. If we hope for survival, our scrappiness will define us. If we hope for the Lord’s salvation, our submission will define us. As time passes and our hopes distill within us, we become more and more like what we hope for. Our hopes become our essence, in a sense, and that essence expresses itself in our attitudes, aspirations, and actions later in life.

A long time ago, Presbyterian pastor Ben Patterson wrote an article for Leadership and made reference to an aging aunt. He observed that as she got older, she became sweeter and sweeter. She had always been a dear soul, but Patterson saw that as she neared her death she was “reducing to her essence.” By the same token, a gentleman of his parish, who had been a thorn in Patterson’s side for years, also reduced to his essence as a complainer. This illustration begs the question: What trajectory am I on? What do I pin my hopes on? What do I dwell on? Those are the things that will define me later in life. Would it not be good to have our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, (Hebrews 12:2), so that Christ-likeness becomes our essence? That is what I have on my bucket list, and trust that what Jesus has begun in me he will complete in that day.



4 Responses to “The Tenth Day of Christmas: Two Old Saints Made Happy”

  1. Bruce Pope Says:

    Me too! BBP

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Oh, Mary! How fine! Simeon and Anna to Nicholson and Freeman, then Ben Patterson and “distilling the essence.” Thought-fuel for my sabbath, help for 2014. Thank you!

  3. sheepdoggin Says:

    yes, I see this often, and wonder about myself. one of my favorite quotes from CS Lewis’ “Weight of Glory” on this topic:

    “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which,if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. *All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations.* It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

    (and yes, I checked off Jerusalem and Petra)

  4. Craig Pynn Says:

    Really a brilliant reflection. I hope we get to hear a sermon someday about Simeon’s and Anna’s bucket list.

    While I have only my own experience as a reference point, I think it’s safe to say that as you move on in post-treatment life the thought “I may have only one or two years left” will probably begin to fade.

    But I’m also pretty sure that for the rest of your life, not too long after you awake each morning, you will recall that you have endured cancer and its treatment. I think this is good because unlike so many who don’t give it a thought, reflecting on our mortality as a daily discipline provides a bright edge and a heightened energy to the realization that God has presented us with the gift of another day. Which we can choose to use to God’s glory or squander in self-pity.

    I remember reading somewhere (unlike you, I can’t cite sources) that a survey taken among older folks revealed that their greatest regret in life was not taking enough risks. The cancer journey is incredibly freeing in this regard. Put that bucket list on the front burner, Mary, because I firmly believe that God has great things yet in store for you.

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