Most of us have regrets regarding the past. We can learn from our mistakes, but we may still regret making them. Sometimes we can put things right, but often we have to accept that something is lost which we can never recover. A promising medical student who fails her course due to a lack of discipline may never get that chance again. In the face of such regrets the life of a baby offers new hope. The child’s life lies open before us; there are no regrets, no looking back and wishing things had been otherwise. The child is an open book, with blank pages projecting into a future full of promise. Yet if we look more closely we may see dark clouds already on the horizon. Will the child grow up to share her father’s tendency for high blood pressure or her mother’s tendency to depression? Will she end up unemployed like the eighty per cent of youths living in her area? Soon the blank pages of the book begin to fill with the forbidding text of a life which looks over before it has begun.
Now you may accuse me of being overly pessimistic. We could tell a very different tale of how the world this child has been born into will shape her life. Yes, there will be difficulties and challenges ahead, but let’s be more optimistic that this child will not only survive her problems, but learn how to thrive.
So which side do you stand on? Are you a glass half empty or a glass half full person? How do we resolve this? If we were to observe the life of this particular child we may find that the pessimist is vindicated, but with that child it’s the optimist who wins out. Both sides could use statistics, the balance of probabilities, to make their case, but that doesn’t tell what will happen to this child, rather it tells me what is likely to happen. The problem with both these approached, with the optimist and with the pessimist, is that they measure the life of the child according to a human measure of success which the child will either succeed or fail in. The child is only just born, but already the burden of expectation lies heavy upon her.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the end of our Christmas liturgies, in which the Gospel of Luke describes how the parents of Jesus bring Him to be presented in the temple. We are told that they are following the Jewish practice according to which ‘every first-born male must be consecrated to the Lord’ (Luke 2:23). This act of presentation happens at the beginning of life because at this point the child is an open book to be filled with God’s law, to be dedicated to God. The child’s life now belongs to the Lord. At first sight this would seem to be the ultimate denial of the child’s freedom, the closing off of the possibility for the child to decide for himself how he wishes to live his life. Yet the reality is that this is the ultimate act of freeing. The child’s life is not to be measured according to success or failure in achieving a set of human goals, but in faithfulness to God’s life giving promises. We are freed from the burden of self-fulfilment for God Himself becomes our fulfilment.
But what of those who are not faithful? Those who refuse the gift of God? To Simeon it had been revealed by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Christ of the Lord. Anna had spent most of her life praying in the temple. These two venerable prophets proclaim that the child being presented in the temple is God’s salvation, the Christ who will free Israel and be a light to the pagans. Here is more than optimism, for this is a real hope. Through this child God will restore us to the faithful friendship we have lost by sinning. More than that, He will offer us adoption as His sons and daughters, to share fully in His joy.
Our past can burden us; mistakes made, hurts suffered. But the past (and for that matter the future) can only truly burden us if we judge our lives by human standards. The hope offered us in Jesus Christ transforms us, so that no matter how life has been hope is not lost, a hope which rest not upon our own efforts, but upon the loving friendship revealed to us in Jesus Christ. This is what Simeon and Anna proclaim: in this child God comes to save us by making us His friends. This is not to say that the emotional hurt of the past goes away, but it is to give us an assurance at the deepest level of our being that no matter how life has turned out God presents us with a gift which goes beyond all human measure: His Only Son.