In one of our recent Sunday readings, we have heard how Jesus, at around the age of 30, read to his hometown synagogue from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me … to proclaim good news to the poor … to declare the year of the Lord’s favour.” “Today,” he goes on to say, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” and the people of Nazareth didn’t believe him. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh on them, either. Whereas the disciples saw Jesus as the man whose eyes and mind pierced their hearts with his knowledge of them, and whereas we today see Jesus with the benefit of 2000 years of hindsight, the Nazarenes knew him simply as “Joe’s boy”. Knowing what I do of my own hometown and its people, 5000 miles away, I can imagine how hard it might be to see the prophet inside the boy you’d known since he was in nappies. On that basis, I can give them a pass for failing to spot what was right amongst them.
And, yet, at Candlemas we hear the story once again of old Simeon and Anna, who had waited patiently for so long “for the consolation of Israel”. When the moment finally came that the Holy Spirit led them to the temple, they both simply accepted with overwhelming joy what was given — a babe in his mother’s arms, a completely unknown (and at that moment unknowable) quantity — and they praised God in pure trust that the prophecy of salvation had been fulfilled in their presence. “Now you can let me go,” says Simeon, “because I have seen enough. Though I will not live to see the day, yet your have kept your word to me, as you said you would. The salvation of Israel is at hand, and that is sufficient.”
The Nazareth story goes on to say that Jesus’s miracles back home were fairly lacklustre compared to what he’d been doing elsewhere. My reading of this curious passage is that it’s less about what Christ was technically capable of and more about what the Nazarenes would (or wouldn’t) let him do. The thing about God’s miracles — indeed, his love in general — is that God can pour out more love upon us than we can even imagine, and yet none of can have any room to be effective if we are not able or prepared to receive it. Even in Nazareth, Christ managed to heal the couple of people who were prepared to believe that his words were something more than just those of Joe’s boy, the carpenter. Yet, for Simeon and Anna, the simple presence of mere potential was enough, because God’s promise was enough, and that netted them so much more.
The question, then, falls to us: are we prepared not simply to believe in God, but in his largesse? We come to church dutifully on a Sunday, proclaiming our faith through the Nicene Creed; we say our prayers, as we have said each week for the last however-many years. The words are all the right ones. But are we then prepared to act — like Simeon and Anna — as if God had already fulfilled the promises he has made? Do we really, truly believe that miracles in a thousand guises are still possible? We say God is a healer; are we ready to be healed? We say God brings life; are we ready to live it? We say God forgives; are we ready to hear his word of forgiveness for those things we barely forgive ourselves? We say God saves; and are we ready, at an unsettled moment in history for both the world and for the Church, to trust that God himself is our rock and salvation: that, come what may, he is at work in the world — and can be in us — to make wholeness out of all that is broken?
The thing about miracles is that, whatever else they may be, they aren’t parlour tricks — a spectacle enacted on a passive audience. Miracles require participation — engagement, active faith — on the part of the recipient almost as much as on that of the giver. There’s no question that the people of Nazareth were people of faith — people who suited up and showed up to the synagogue to hear the promise of God. They are to be commended for that, actually, because that puts us in a good position to encounter him. Yet, when the crunch came, they were not prepared, as Simeon and Anna were, to be surprised, to allow God to say “the miracle is now upon you”, and to trust that he meant what he said. Yet if, 2000 years later, we are to proclaim Good News in the world, as we say we are meant to do, then we must follow the latter path: we must take risks; step sometimes into the unknown; pray not just by speaking, but by listening; and seek — like Simeon and Anna — to be where the Holy Spirit leads us.