“The old man held the boy, but the boy held the old man.”
The old antiphon, the poetic couplet the church has sung from ancient times during the feast of Simeon captures it perfectly, doesn’t it? The old man held the boy, but the boy held the old man.
The old man Simeon, who has spent his waning years waiting for a Messiah, for a promise of better times for a people who will outlast him, of God’s goodness and justice, of peace and liberty and vitality once again being unleashed on the world was waiting on the temple grounds, waiting for God to show up. No doubt he had been there many other days waiting. Most days. Watching, praying, expecting.
But on this day when that poor couple walked with their new baby and their meager offering into the temple to have their child marked as God’s and blessed, Simeon knew at once that the promise lay before him in their arms. The Spirit told him Luke tells us—three times to make sure we see the connection, hear the proof. And he reached out and took the child and cradled him, and his heart was full. And as so many actors do in Luke, his heart spilled out in song.
The old man held the boy, but the boy held the old man.
Perhaps we are surprised to recall that Mary and Joseph were poor. I suspect it is easy to forget. We remember the child had no place to lay his head, but we forget how much access money can buy.
We might wonder, for example, if the issue at the inn might really have been a financial one. Did the new dad simply not have the cash for the Motel 6? You can imagine how Joseph might have felt as he stood by helpless while the mother of his child gave birth beside oxen and donkeys and other beasts of burden not so unlike like this struggling carpenter.
Shepherds worshiped the baby. Kings traveled days to bring him exotic gifts. Again and again people told them of the blessing they held in their arms. And every day the parents struggled to make ends meet. So Mary and Joseph could produce nothing but a humble offering, a pittance, as they brought the child with them to the temple—two turtle doves, not a lamb.
And yet, it was enough. It was all that was needed.
We live in a society in which it is hard to understand the blessings of poverty. Perhaps this is especially true at the back end of a season that is built around shopping and seemingly endless consumption. You can imagine how difficult it might be on someone who struggles every day to make ends meet, to survive outside, to hold onto a modicum of dignity.
And yet Simeon would have known immediately what he was dealing with when he saw that child and his parents and those two doves. And this poor boy held the old man as the old man held the boy.
Can you imagine how that might have lifted the spirits of this exhausted couple, this exquisite attention? They had, after all spent the first month of his life on the road—first to Bethlehem and then to Jerusalem. How many day’s wages had Joseph missed to meet the requirements of state and church? And yet, here they are, faithful—perhaps to a fault. And then Simeon and then Anna see them and their hearts overflow. Can you imagine what an impression that might have made on them? Can you imagine what Mary might have pondered in her heart?
I wonder if we have any idea what power we possess to shape people. I wonder if we have any idea the impression our lives and our love can make on others. I wonder if we have any idea of our power, and of the power of the church to bless and to invite people to move from shame to peace, from childhood to maturity. I wonder if we have any idea how our intertwined lives can transport us from poverty to abundance.
The role of religion in most societies throughout history has included the initiation of children. Moving from childhood to adulthood has never been the work of the immediate family alone. It has always involved a village, an assembly. The biological father is rarely the initiator of his own son. Older and unrelated men are almost always the ones who initiate boys into manhood. Older and unrelated females have always been instrumental in guiding girls into adulthood. It takes a village.
I suspect it is also true there is something of a village inside each of us. The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr notes that for males, the old man and the eternal boy exist side-by-side. He says it this way:
Traditional religion and schooling tended to create and reward old men as does the success-oriented business world. If we only follow [the old man’s] lead, we become rigid and unsmiling. On the other side, postmodern culture produces a lot of eternal boys who are afraid to grow up. They are often great at art and music, humor and dance, but they don’t tend to know how to support themselves or others beyond that, and actually do not have much father energy. True religion should be the harmonious integration of both.[ii]
At our best the two archetypes exist within us in creative tension: The old man holds the boy, but the boy holds the old man.
Rohr suggests that the critical age for moving to maturity is often in the forties when the two archetypes confront one another. “Usually one is rejected forever,” he says:
Because of the sophistication and success needs of our culture, most men reject the eternal boy early and become, in their worst form, heavy control freaks. Those who choose the eternal boy end up starving artists, armchair philosophers, misfits, wandering musicians or religious rebels, usually considered naïve or useless. Neither can contribute much to themselves or to society. They need their other male half.[iii]
And you can see the successful integration of these two in this story can’t you?—in Joseph as he stands there wondering who he might be as he sees before him astonishing examples of the boy and the old man—both contained in his own life as he considers what he might be, how he might live beyond himself, and bless a world that will outlast him.
The church gave me that. It gave me older men who modeled maturity for me when I was a teenager and my father wasn’t around. Later, when I was beginning my ministry, and trying to figure out how to play well with others, it gave me a gentle pastor named Brock at the church across town. Brock was a source of comfort and reassurance and affirmation who gave me hope and allowed me to see something in myself even and especially in chaos.
I’ve seen it here too. Have you?
This same story is told again and again in our life. It is our work, in fact, to give courage and strength and identity to the next generations. We must shape and structure our life here, in fact, to make it possible. It is only way God’s Kingdom can come. We need each other to find our way, to find that harmonious integration of the eternal child and the old man or woman. And we have the power to bless others with this gift as well. We have the power to mirror what others can be and already are, to shape it and encourage it in this village of ours. It is the work of the Spirit in you and me and especially in the church. May we continue in this work as we are held by this child.
[i] See Leviticus 12:8. Noted by William Herzog in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2008), 167.
[ii] Rohr, Richard; Martos, Joseph (2011-07-07). From Wild Man to Wise Man: Reflections on Male Spirituality (p. 138). Kindle Edition.
[iii] Ibid., 139.