“A Sign That Will Be Contradicted”: On Conscience and Christian Praxis

Simeon embraces the baby Jesus in the temple.
Simeon embraces the baby Jesus in the temple.

Today’s mass readings took me right out of Christmas and straight to the Passion. I love reading familiar passages with new eyes but, let me be honest, sometimes the surprise is uncomfortable. So it goes. The Gospel passage from Luke tells the story of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple. Simeon, a righteous man who was promised by the Holy Spirit that he would live long enough to meet the messiah, the consolation of his people, Israel. When Joseph and Mary present the infant Jesus in the temple in accordance with their religious custom, Simeon takes the child in his arms, blessing God saying,

 “Lord, now let your servant go in peace;
your word has been fulfilled:
my own eyes have seen the salvation
which you prepared in the sight of every people,
a light to reveal you to the nations
and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)

Admit it, parents: who wouldn’t mind this being said of their own child? While biblical scholars debate the historical veracity of the presentation of Jesus in the temple along the other infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, what some do agree on is the faith which the evangelists proclaim, showing their audiences (Matthew speaking to Jews and Luke to gentiles) that Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of the messianic age promised to the people of Israel and indeed to anyone who would follow proclaim Jesus as Lord.[1] Without the space here to develop whether Simeon’s prophecy literally happened, I focus instead on that which the author of Luke’s Gospel wants us to know about Jesus: he is the salvation delivered by God to all people – regardless of faith – to be palpably present especially to God’s people, Israel. Yet this light and glory is not to be experienced as a whimsical scene filled with roses and butterflies. The evangelist goes on,

The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him;
and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother,
“Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
(and you yourself a sword will pierce)
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:33-35)

A sign that will be contradicted … so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. And you yourself a sword will pierce. At this point, if I were Mary I would have rather Simeon had stopped at the light to the nations and glory of Israel business, thank you very much. Imagine knowing that the great good your child is called to do with his life will be met with opposition, division, even violence. As much as this story may be an attempt to explain the unlikely messiah of Jesus of Nazareth, can we not also say with the vantage of over twenty centuries hence that this is how human societies treat those who love fully by working for the good of the oppressed and marginalized?

Mural of Msgr. Oscar Romero, martyred Archbishop of San Salvador.
Mural of Msgr. Oscar Romero, martyred Archbishop of San Salvador.

As Christians, and especially at Christmas, it is sobering to know that this is what we are called to: a life of loving service to the poor and to the work of God’s reign – “a sign that will be contradicted.” The life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth was about one thing – proclaiming the nearness of God’s kingdom which is peace – and although many were against this and him for it, he did not waver from his call. In the life of Jesus of Nazareth, humanity knows God as enfleshed in the world among us, calling us to know and do the good fully and without conditions – without concern for staying within the good opinions of others who might oppose the good we do. To share in Christian praxis means expecting that doing the truth in love will be met with opposition, and responding to that opposition lovingly, creatively, and nonviolently, but never betraying the truth of one’s deepest self to make God’s love palpably present in the world. In the time of Jesus, this fully living out the truth of one’s deepest self is what we understand today as living in integrity with one’s conscience, the way one knows the good to do and evil to avoid in each circumstance. Gaudium et spes states that a person’s dignity lies in observing her conscience and on that “[s]he will be judged” (GS 16). In reading Simeon’s prophecy to Mary, I think of the many ongoing struggles for justice in the U.S. and around the world that pierce at human hearts, setting consciences against a razor’s edge, sometimes sending neighbors into opposing corners. In all of these struggles for civil and human rights, I can only hope that the wisdom of someone like Ignatius of Loyola can serve to light the path of human hearts.

Lord Jesus, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve,
To give and not to count the cost,
To fight and not to heed the wounds,
To toil and not to seek for rest,
To labor and not to seek reward,
Except that of knowing that I do your will. Amen.

Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King lead the Selma to Montgomery March, 1965.
Ralph Abernathy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, and John Lewis lead the Selma to Montgomery March, 1965.

[1] http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com/article/opr/t94/e939