Luke 2:33-38

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

One more thing before we leave Simeon: the cross is not a surprise.

Notice, in one of most poignant scenes in the gospel, Simeon’s words to Mary. He has just predicted that God would be at work through this child for the salvation of all people. Jesus’ parents are amazed. And then he continues, saying that Jesus – now just an infant – would occasion the rise and fall of many and would elicit significant opposition. Perhaps that’s not surprising to Mary – keep in mind the revolutionary character of her Magnificat – but then he looks, I imagine, straight at this young mother and says the heartbreaking lines he was charged to deliver, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

No, the cross is not a surprise. Both Luke and Matthew include scenes at the outset of their stories – in the very accounts of Jesus’ birth – that anticipate the future opposition and enmity that will eventually trigger the cross when, indeed, a sword will pierce this young mother’s soul.

But while the cross is not a surprise, that’s not to say it isn’t tragic.

Christians, in my experience, sometimes conflate these two things. Since the cross is not a surprise, it must be part of some grand plan of redemption. From this proposition, the logic flows increasingly backward. Indeed, perhaps the cross is actually a good thing, because it is the instrument of God’s redemption. And if the cross is good, then Adam’s fall – which, after all, precipitated the need for the cross – is also a blessed event. Hence, theologians predisposed to this point of view have called Adam’s sin the felix culpa, or “happy fault.” And before long everything – good, bad, or ugly – becomes part of some larger cosmic plan designed before the foundations of the earth were laid.

Quite honestly, I understand something of the appeal of this logic. If it’s all part of a plan we can take some comfort that even during the worst moments of our lives God, and by extension we, are still in control.  There is next to nothing, in fact, that can’t be explained as part of God’s will. Illness, calamity, premature death, even the murder of children – all this and more can be explained as elements of a mysterious but divinely initiated and controlled plan. And when it feels like your whole world is falling apart, there is some modicum of comfort in such a thought.

But while such a point of view may be understandable, it also exacts a significant cost. It imagines, for starters, a God who deals out good and evil immune to our wellbeing, or at least only interested in our eventual and cosmic well being. In the meantime, watch out – you never know when and where God’s mysterious will may strike next. Little wonder insurance policies used to describe the purview of their coverage as including fire, earthquake, flood…and other acts of God.

And then there’s the personal cost. If the tragedies of our life are all a part of God’s will, then our role is to accept them. Not grieve – at least not excessively – our losses; not rage against them; perhaps not even stand in their way. Indeed, one wonders what the point of decisive action is at all if everything is controlled by some overarching design. Our role is to accept all that befalls us as coming from the hand of God in pious obedience to God’s will. And so our comfort comes at the cost of numbing ourselves to genuine human reactions to tragedy and loss which include not only grief and rage and sadness but also feeling the despair of being out of control.

One more thing, as on this day and in response to this passage I’m also mindful of another cost to the idea that the cross – and by extension everything else – is planned and controlled by God: it nullifies the very real sacrifice of those involved. Jesus’ courageous embrace of the cross? All part of the plan. The sword that will pierce Mary’s soul? She knew it was coming and played her part.

Do you see what I mean? If this is all part of a plan, then the role they – and we – play is more like actors on a stage, if not indeed robots in a lab, rather than as genuine, feeling, choosing participants.

Yet one of the great elements of Luke’s drama to this point is that in spite of her fear and confusion, Mary says yes. She is a willing and acting participant in God’s redemption. And so are we.

So rather than see the cross as part of some plan, let’s instead imagine that it was – and, quite frankly, still is – the inevitable outcome of obedience to God’s intent and call to love all, save all, have regard for all, and care for all. The powers of this world will always oppose the call to radical love, equality, and dignity that Jesus offers because love, equality, and dignity spell the end to the concentration of power.

This isn’t news. The disciples of Jesus – from the earliest crew to more recent followers like Dietrich and Martin – knew that if you’re going to follow Jesus, you’d better look good on wood. To live as Jesus, they saw, is likely to end up like Jesus.

So the cross is not a good thing. Not at all. It is horrible, tragic, awful, and unjust. Yet God in Jesus embraced it anyway, not as part of some cosmic plan but rather out of divine love to come and redeem us and all the world in love even if it meant being hung on a tree.

“And a sword will pierce your own soul also.” These are tragic lines, spoken, I imagine, with choked emotion as Simeon anticipated the cost this young mother would bear. And yet also spoken, I believe with the hope for a measure of comfort for her, the comfort that comes not from knowing not that God planned it, but rather from believing that God would accompany her through her it and, indeed, work through it for the redemption of the world.

Prayer: Dear God, remind us that while you neither intend nor send any of the hurtful and tragic events of our lives, yet you promise to be with us, to accompany us through them, and whenever possible to work through them for the sake of good. In Jesus’ name, Amen.