As the chaplain, I decided that for this year for our Advent Quiet Day at the College of St Barnabas we would focus on two pairs of biblical elders. One from the Old Testament in the book of Genesis – Abraham and Sarah. And one from the New Testament in St Luke’s Gospel – Simeon and Anna. The faith and witness of both pairs were explored and at the end of each reading and reflection a single question was posed for the residents to consider in relation to themselves and the college community. We finished our Quiet Day together by sharing our reflections and agreeing to revisit them as we seek to continue to explore and deepen our fellowship together in 2022. Below I have shared for your personal contemplation the reflections used for our Advent Quiet Day. Enjoy!
Countless sermons extol the virtues of the elderly couple, Abraham and Sarah. The duo who left the comfy confines of their homeland to a land they didn’t even know existed. Scripture, however, shines the spotlight on God as the hero in this story of saving grace. The saga of Abraham and Sarah rises out of the hopelessness of their own barrenness. Abraham is recorded as 75 years old when we begin his journey of faith. With no children, he and Sarah left for Canaan with no real indication of future possibilities. Except they had God’s promise. Unimaginable, unspeakable blessing would be theirs because of God. But they had to trust and obey. This required leaving familiarity for a land and life to be named later. It meant admitting their emptiness and finding their fullness in God alone. This isn’t any different than God’s call to each of us.
Jesus framed discipleship in the starkest terms: “Any of you who does not give up everything, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33) Can Jesus be serious? Let go of everything? Is there a money-back guarantee? Questions like these cloud the reality of a God whose presence eclipses even the most awful emptiness. This is Abraham and Sarah’s story: desolation overcome by God’s abundant provision. Abraham and Sarah weren’t profoundly heroic and neither are we. We’re just ordinary people following God’s direction, trusting His provision and surrendering to Him. This means admitting our emptiness and finding our fullness in God alone. But where might we begin? What shall we travel with?
Perhaps we can begin with a word. By most standards we would describe Abraham and Sarah’s physical and spiritual journey starting when they were both retired. Retirement is a word that the English language appropriated from the French, around the 16th century. It was originally used in a military sense; i.e. “to withdraw to a place of safety or seclusion” (from the French ‘re’ (back) and ‘tirer’ (to draw)). The word ‘pension’ also came into usage around the 16th century, again in the military sense, meaning “a regular sum paid to maintain allegiance” (from the Latin ‘pendere’ To pay). So, the two words most often used today to describe stopping work (retirement and pensioner – both originally military terms) have negative connotations, implying a tax or burden on society, of people who are of less use, or who don’t contribute.
This is not the case in all cultures and societies. One notable exception is Spanish speaking countries, where they use the word ‘jubilación’ – which is perhaps what we should all be encouraged to strive for in retirement – jubilation! Jubilación is both a Latin and, as you will probably know, a Biblical word – Jubilee – which focuses on:
Jubilación is a much richer and more finely nuanced word than retirement. It encapsulates the situation of Abraham and Sarah without denying any of the challenges they were to face. It helps me to glimpse how desolation, may be overcome by God’s abundant provision. It gives me courage to admit my emptiness, in order to find fullness in God.
Question: What might Jubilación look like here and now at the College of St Barnabas?
When Advent, the Twelve days of Christmas, and Epiphany have all passed, I turn to the story of Simeon and Anna to hold on to the mystery and joy of Jesus’ birth. This story of Simeon and Anna tells of two faithful servants who recognised salvation in a tiny baby. The story starts with Joseph and Mary following Israelite law and observing the expected post-birth rituals. They circumcise their son when he is eight days old. Then, after Mary’s purification, they arrive at the temple in Jerusalem to make a sacrifice and cleanse Mary. While at the temple, they also pay the redemption price for Jesus, as Jewish law states that all firstborn sons must be redeemed at the temple when they are a month old. This was a reminder of God’s saving work, rescuing the Israelites from the Egyptians and passing over the Israelite homes during the final plague in the Exodus story.
All of this obedience to law and tradition sets the scene for the arrival of Simeon, a righteous and devout man, filled with the Holy Spirit, who was awaiting the consolation of Israel and had been promised he would see the Lord’s Messiah before he died. It’s particularly significant that Simeon was filled with the Holy Spirit. Before Pentecost, God’s Holy Spirit was usually reserved for specific individuals to equip them for particular tasks. The Holy Spirit was there to equip Simeon for his task: recognising and proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah. The text makes this clear, stating, “It had been revealed to [Simeon] by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts.”
When Jesus is just a tiny baby, Simeon points to the hope that this child will be for both Jews and Gentiles. He reveals that Jesus has come to save the world. Joseph and Mary marvel at this, and Simeon gives Mary an additional blessing, and then, just as they must think the big moment is over, Anna appears. Anna was a prophetess who remained at the temple day and night. This female prophet confirms all that Simeon has just proclaimed. This tiny baby, Jesus, is the Saviour. She gives thanks to God and proclaims the identity of the child to all those waiting for redemption.
In this way, Anna and Simeon speak to us today, just as they spoke to those in the temple years ago. We, like them, are waiting for redemption. The Christmas festivities will come and go, but this hope of Christmas is what we carry with us. Simeon and Anna may have been a great age, but we can still sense the jubilation in their voices. They do not see themselves as isolated individuals, but as part of something bigger than themselves. Thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit, they had revealed to them a very deep love, and perhaps a greater understanding of what it means to love deeply. It is world changing. It reminds me of some words from a founding father of the United States of America, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790):
“Those who love deeply never grow old. They may die of old age, but they die young.”
Benjamin Franklin initially owned slaves, but became an abolitionist. After 1758 Franklin gradually changed his mind when his friend Samuel Johnson brought him to one of Dr. Bray’s schools for black children. Dr. Bray Associates was a philanthropic association affiliated to the Church of England. In 1759 he joined the association by donating money. In 1759 he met Anthony Benezet who started a school in Philadelphia and who later co-founded the Abolition Society. In 1763 Franklin wrote that African shortcomings and ignorance were not inherently natural, but come from lack of education, slavery and negative environments. He also wrote that he saw no difference in learning between African and white children. In 1787 Franklin became the President of the Abolition Society. He knew what it meant to love deeply. He died at the age of 84 but you could say, he died young.
Question: What might loving deeply look like here and now at the College of St Barnabas?