Extras. That’s what it was called. It was a simple enough title and premise. Between 2005 and 2007, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (the bright minds behind the original British series, The Office) created, wrote and acted in this clever and discomfiting series about a pathetic actor, his dim-witted actress friend and his hapless agent. The aspirations of these three were simple and naked. They wanted to make it big in the acting industry. They wanted to strike it rich. No longer did they want to be “extras” called to the most far-flung locations to wear the most ridiculous outfits and say the most inconsequential lines for the briefest of moments. They didn’t want their lives to be about competing for lesser obscurity. They wanted to be the stars of the show. Yes, they wanted to be the stars. And yet. And yet. Over the course of thirteen episodes, you couldn’t help but squirm, cringe and simply pity this group of mediocrities. Condemned by ill-fated ambition and all-consuming insecurity, their best efforts were consistently (and hilariously) for naught as they angled for opportunity only to utterly and miserably sabotage themselves. Extras they began and, to some extent, Extras they would remain.
I am almost ashamed to say that I started thinking about this bawdy, at times irreverent, sitcom during Mass this weekend. It was Candlemas, also known as The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Faithful to the Mosaic Law of purification and consecration, Mary and Joseph brought their weeks-old son, Jesus, to the Temple of Jerusalem. This holy pilgrimage was meaningful to all the Jewish faithful, but it is hard not to imagine its special import in the eyes of the earthly parents of Christ. And so, while finding their way through the masses of pilgrims and practitioners bustling through the Temple, who should approach this young couple and their special charge? As Luke 2:25-38 records,
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him 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 the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother:
“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
Separately, this old man and this old woman emerge out of the crush of bodies in the Temple. And like the shepherds following the call of angels or the wise men tracking that one special star, the Holy Spirit otherwise undescribed and likely indescribable leads, pulls and opens them up to this young couple and their Child. On the day of great consecration of their Child, this stranger takes hold of their Boy…and it is okay. What he says, is stunning. In forty-five words, he describes this moment as the culmination of his life and this Child as the Culmination of Humanity. Then, in the difficult and often painful truth-telling that comes with prophecy, he describes the seismic impact this Infant will have on the world…and the impact the world’s angry blade will have on this sweet, but sturdy young mother. And then he is gone. Likewise, without captured words, the aged Anna breaks from her routine of unending prayer and fasting to offer sweet worship to the God enfleshed before her wise, yet weary eyes. She offers thanks to God for this Babe, almost oblivious to the parents holding Him and then walks away rejoicing and witnessing never the same. Never the same. And she was gone.
We never know what becomes of Simeon and Anna. These two grace the pages of the Gospels for mere paragraphs. Yet their entire life was informed by and designed around this very moment. The creased lines on the faces slacken. The heavy chest of waiting breath empties with relief at last. At last. At last. God With Us. Nunc dimmitis. Dismiss your servant, O Lord, Simeon utters.
Simeon and Anna are what I would call God’s Extras. God’s Extras are the individuals who appear gracefully in the story of Christ for mere moments – a cameo, if you will. And yet, they play an infinitely valuable role. These two, in particular, demonstrate steadfast patience and fidelity in awaiting the return of God. They exude profound witness in the early stages of Christ’s residence on Earth. And they must have given Mary and Joseph another moment where the young couple could look at each other and nearly weep – weep because, dear God, someone else knows and believes what we know and believe.
God’s Extras fill the Bible and yet we never know their names, their origins or their destination. But we know them because they move us beyond imagination. A bleeding woman defying convention and touching the hem of Christ’s robe. A paralytic lowered by four devoted friends through a dismantled rooftop. A rich man who sadly couldn’t stay and a once-demon-possessed man who never wanted to leave. A boy with a basket of bread and a gratefully returning leper with a new lease on life. A centurion asking for healing of a servant from afar. A thief asking for paradise from a neighboring cross.
These are God’s Extras. And they have defined our understanding of faith, mercy, forgiveness, love, sin and redemption. Christ came to remind us of God’s deep, unfailing love…but he wanted our help to show it. You see, the secret of God’s Extras is just this…God has no Extras. Unlike the puckish, yet ultimately forlorn characters in Gervais and Merchant’s series, every person in God’s drama is dignified, is worthy, is indispensable. Every person is a star supporting the central figure of Christ. From the least to the very greatest in the eyes of the world, all are incalculably valuable in the eyes of God. There is no need to aspire to greatness. As children of God, we simply are great. Yet once we recognize the depth of God’s love and the value He has imprinted upon us, we are simply called to live up to this fact, fully and faithfully. Simeon knew this. Anna knew this. Mary and Joseph knew this. Do we? How wonderful, how deeply wonderful, to be one of God’s Extras.