Most people who watched TV in the 90s will remember the situation comedy Seinfeld. One of my favorite actors on the show, Jerry Stiller, played the father of Seinfeld friend George Constanza, the unforgettable Frank Costanza. One episode of the show depicts Frank bellowing up into the air, “Serenity Now!” When son George asks him why he does this, Frank says, "The doctor gave me a relaxation cassette. When my blood pressure gets too high, the man on the tape tells me to say 'serenity now!'" "Are you supposed to YELL it?" George asks, rhetorically. "The man on the tape wasn't specific,” Frank barks back impatiently. This exchange is then followed by several arguments between Frank and others (his son, his wife) where, at the end of his rope, Frank throws his hands up in the air and shouts at the top of his lungs, “Serenity Now!” It’s clear to everyone (except maybe Frank himself) that his blood pressure is exploding, and serenity will likely remain beyond his grasp. Religion and faith are sometimes viewed like Frank Costanza’s “serenity now” exercise. With the imminent change on the calendar (from 2017 to 2018) perhaps that’s even more the case recently. Will this be the year that we get a handle on that anger? On that unhealthy habit? Will this be the year we get that anxiety under control? If so, perhaps religion and faith can help. We all want serenity, and we want it now! And while there is nothing wrong with setting a goal and striving to meet it, God wants more for us than a shortcut to serenity that relies on our efforts and coincides with one day of the calendar.
This week St. Luke depicts the arrival of Jesus in the Jerusalem temple and his welcome by faith veterans Simeon and Anna. Like the shepherds who witnessed the angelic choir that first Christmas night, Simeon and Anna are set in motion by the arrival of the Christ child! The gift they receive is better than serenity...it is the faithfulness and love of a God who had made good on His promise to them! But unlike the shepherds, these two have not witnessed anything "BIG." No conversation with an angel. No heavenly chorus or explosion of music in the night sky. Just a baby, brought by his parents into the temple "to fulfill the Law." No matter how faithful Simeon and Anna might have been, Jesus came to fulfill the Law that they (and we) could not. He came as the One to redeem Israel. And that is enough. This rescue, begun in the temple by the baby Jesus and completed on Calvary's cross would be (as we often sing in thanksgiving after receiving Jesus ourselves in His holy Supper) "a light to lighten the Gentiles and [God's] people Israel!" It is rescue completed 2000 years ago, but delivered to us today through things as ordinary as a crying baby: ordinary words of forgiveness that we proclaim to one another...ordinary water in a baptismal font...ordinary bread and wine.
On every New Year's day in Japan, people around the country get up early to watch the sun rise. It's reassuring to know that with all the change that a new year might bring, something as ordinary (yet as beautiful) as a sunrise can be enjoyed again! But a sunrise represents not only continuity; it also signifies a new beginning. Because of Jesus, our guilt over past sin is taken away...and our future days are now a blank slate for us to freely write on, knowing that the God who fulfills his promises is with us every step of the way. As we bask in that light again this week, let's enjoy a grace-filled New Year.