Jarrod McKenna, the Teaching Pastor at Westcity Church and Co-Founder of First Home Project, reflects on the agony and the holiness of real hope this Christmas.

Real hope is hard. I imagine Simeon’s leathered baritone voice. His aged throaty Aramaic vocality reminiscent of the late great crackle of Leonard Cohen. I can almost hear him draw breath before this young couple with their first baby standing there in the temple, before he exposes his soul in sound. These words in tender-rumble fall over the Christ child;

At last, all-powerful Master,

You give leave to your servant

To go in peace, according to your promise.

For my eyes have seen your salvation

Which you have prepared for all nations,

The light to enlighten the Gentiles

And give glory to Israel, your people.

His song finished, his life at its end, he breaks the waiting silence with another prophetic word. This time it’s for Mary, “A sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Sword? Suffering? What would Mary and Joseph make of such prophecies? The Gentiles, our enemies, who have humiliated us, are to be healed through this child? This is glory for God’s chosen people? What kind of consolation can save us through what we seek to be saved from? Mary, did you know news of a nonviolent Messiah would violently pierce your soul like a sword? What kind of hope is this... brutal in its sublime beauty?

I confess how hard I find it to open daily to my own pain, let alone hold my heart open for a hope that’s wide enough to envelope Aleppo, Haiti, Don Dale, Manus, Bagdad, Hebron, The Great Barrier Reef. Or even just enough hope for reconciliation with those who I am estranged from this Christmas. Often the only hope we have is that others won’t peer behind the thin positivity or religiosity that we wrap our protective indifference and dysfunction in. We scramble to shield our souls against being pierced by the hope of a Saviour who liberates through suffering-love, even to the point of a cross.

And the prophets know it is only through poetry such things can be said. And Simeon knows speaking poetry isn’t always enough. Sometimes hope must be sung.

Trust and trembling are heard in such a song. Abraham Joshua Heschel remarks that “music leads us to the threshold of repentance, of unbearable relevance of God.”

In community I have sung old man Simeon’s song on and off, at the completion of the day, for nearly a decade. The unbearable relevance of hope is a hard song to sing. I have sung it in joy after news of friends getting married. I have sung it in despairing disbelief after news of a close friend being murdered. I have sung it knowing the goodness of community. I have sung it alone, to fight back the night, when I am worn out by sorrow. Simeon’s song is about real hope, real holiness. It ends the day with sober silence. A waiting rest. In such silence I have learned that real hope is hard.

Anna and Simeon alike, haunt us with the holiness of hard-fought-for hope. Hope that is a fragile gift. Hope that daily requires the wrestling open of our hands and hearts to be received. The hope that demands a willingness to feel through the numbness. A willingness to hurt.

This kind of hope has nothing to do with silly - even if sincere - self-obsessed, religious control-games where we seek to manipulate God with our ‘morality’ by ‘getting it right’. Anna and Simeon’s “righteous and devout” witness is far more terrifying: not moral achievements but sheer grace. The grace of control relinquished. The grace of brokenness embraced. The grace of forgiveness received and given. The grace and integrity of hope hung on to, through hell, for the long haul. Holiness experienced as showing up and allowing your heart to break over, and over, and over till the horizon of our hearts are as vast as Heaven’s hope for everyone, everything. The embarrassment of holiness is that it is never our own. Holiness is always on loan, only received in humility, and most often received as the pain of hope. Lifetimes-long allowing of the Spirit to harrow and hallow our desires in active waiting. That’s the witness of Anna and Simeon’s waiting.

Waiting for what? When God’s world will be made right. Active waiting where we learn to say no to counterfeit consolation: simple answers, quick-fixes and easy-outs that would protect us from entering in on the heartbreaking ache of God and his promised Messiah.

So here we are with Mary and Joseph and their baby in the temple. God’s got the whole world in his hands but here in the temple, Simeon holds God’s presence in his arms. The Most High has come so low, assuming all that needs to be healed. Here, in Simeon’s embrace, is the All Powerful, made all vulnerable. And it’s all taking place here in the temple.

Here, where the Psalms have reverberated in Simeon’s chest and shaped his imagination as he has sung. Here, where on quiet mornings, the only answer to his laments have been echoes off bare walls. Here, where in the evening, his once broad shoulders and now fragile elderly frame, have shaken to music, and shared that shaking with his naked voice, manifesting the memory of his people’s hope and the emotions of his God. Here, where his cries have hallowed God’s name, and harrowed his soul in waiting for the Messiah and his kingdom.  And now this young couple place into Simeon’s hands, his hope.

In Simeon’s hands history and hope are held. God has answered our cries. Simeon senses the only language worthy of such wonder, such a mystery, is that of music. Before we can speak, our first songs in life are cries. We hold our breath until a newborn takes their first breath, and sings for the first time in cries. What sets Simeon’s hope apart from that of the nations is that his people chant and sing in praise to the Creator who hears and responds to the cries of the oppressed.  And what is song if not the human cry transfigured in melody, that demands our bodies enter into the vulnerability of our poetry?

In this season, may we have ears to hear Simeon’s song. May our voices shake with his in awe of a God who saves by suffering love. Real hope is hard. It calls from us a holiness which is not our own. May hope pierce our souls with Christ’s victorious suffering-love that we too might lift our voice in song.

Jarrod McKenna is the Teaching Pastor at Westcity Church and Co-Founder of First Home Project. Image credit: Kelly Sikkema

Daily Reading Luke 2:21-35

Jesus Is Named

21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Jesus Is Presented in the Temple

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”),24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
    according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31     which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 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 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

An Advent series on "Being Present"