No one looks up when they come in.
They’re not the kind of people that make you look up. They’re the kind you notice out the corner of your eye, and you look harder at the floor or the wall. Don’t make eye contact; they might talk to you, and then what would you do?
There is a man, a woman and a baby, and they’re not from around here.
All three are dirty, tired, smelly, as if they’ve been sleeping in a barn and on the side of the road for days. The woman is less dirty. She’s had her ritual bath for purification after childbirth, but you wouldn’t call her pristine, not to look at her. Her clothes are a sight. She’s too young to have a baby anyway. It’s probably not even that man’s baby– with those people, you never can tell.
They have with them a tiny cage containing two pigeons. They bought it outside for a ritual offering– the ritual offering for the poorest people, who have nothing useful to contribute to society. Good people bring a sheep. But they have probably never owned anything as valuable as a sheep. They’re the kind of people who sit in on a neighbor’s Passover Seder and eat some of his hard-earned lamb, because they can’t afford their own.
They walk past you, and you look at the floor. Look as if you’re praying. You are praying, hard, for the deliverance of Israel, and you need to try to look the part. Look hard as if you belong here, which they certainly do not.
They present their baby to the priest. The man’s accent betrays him as Nazorean, from up in Galilee out of which nothing good comes. You might have known. Thank God the census is over now, and these people will go back where they came from. You’ve nearly forgotten what it’s like to pray uninterrupted.
It turns out the baby is a boy– you wouldn’t have been able to guess either way with him wrapped in those filthy secondhand blankets. These people don’t even know how to dress an infant. He’s sure to get pneumonia and it will serve them right, but what if he gives it to somebody else? The poor spread disease and we all pay the price.
The priest performs the ancient ritual. The baby cries for a moment. The doves are slaughtered in that brutal, methodical way; the blood sprays. The Law is a messy thing, which is necessary, because we’re messy people who have made ourselves dirty in the sight of the Lord. The Lord who dwells above the Firmament is clean. We here below are not.Not that they would know about that, of course. You wonder if they’ve ever studied the Law and find out why they perform rituals like these. You wonder if they can even read. Surely, for them, their faith is just habit, going through the motions. Something you do because of where you were born and who your parents were. The Lord isn’t real, to them. To them it’s all just custom. And you thank the Lord that He made you so unlike a family of dirty, ignorant people from the worst part of Galilee.
What is old Simeon doing?
The last thing the temple needs right now is more distractions from our prayer. Why did he run up and grab that baby?
What is he saying now?
“Lord, now let your servant go in peace. Your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which You have prepared in the sight of every people, a Light to reveal You to the nations and the Glory of Your people, Israel.”
That isn’t part of the ritual.
That’s something brand new.
Simeon starts talking to the mother, who looks afraid.
You stare at the ceiling even harder. He really is getting old. This might be his last year here with us on earth. Simeon is a good man, respectable, a pillar of the community, not given to outbursts like these.
And then old Anna starts up with one of her prophecies again. That woman always has something to say, and always at the worst times.
Now the Galileans will have a story to tell when they get back to their home.
The strange family starts to walk out, as quietly as they came, the mother re-arranging the blankets around her wriggling infant. You catch sight of him for a moment.
His eyes are open. He gazes in your direction in that way that newborn babies do, intent, as if they are wise.
All babies look about the same, really. He could be anybody’s child.
For a moment, you are sorry for him. What chance does he have, with parents like these?
The mother glances your way as well, and then the father. They are all looking at you now– the man, the woman, the baby. They are about to say something to you.
You look back at the floor, quickly. God forbid that they should drag you into the disruption. Anna and Simeon will calm down in a moment. Whatever they had to say, it can’t be as important as your prayer. You pray again for the deliverance of Israel.
You forget them as soon as they are gone.
And now, what will become of you?
(image via Pixabay)