Text: Luke 2:22-35
In the blink of an eye, oily ashes will adorn our foreheads and the Lenten journey will begin again.
As I approach Lent each year, memories revisit and often they are ones I’d rather forget. One such Lenten memory occurred in what the church dares to call “Ordinary Time.” It was a gorgeous Fall day in 2001 when I was pastor of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Old Town, Alexandria. I was walking onto the church grounds when I was met with the frantic announcement: “Planes have hit the World Trade Center in NYC and now the Pentagon.” We had members who worked during the week in one of the World Trade Centers and a number of members worked at the Pentagon.
As you and I approach another Lent, a season in which time morphs into a mélange of memories, my mind keeps slipping back to Judith Kaplan, an orthodox Jew whose remarkable work began immediately after the planes struck in NYC. I think of Judith because I am convinced that she can teach us – Jew and Christian – important ways to navigate memories and honor memories that we cannot and should not shake.
“In the darkest hours of the night,” Jane Gross writes, “Judith Kaplan, dressed in her Sabbath finery, sat in a tent outside the New York City Medical Examiner’s office, singing the haunting repertoire from the Book of Psalms. From midnight until 5 a.m., within sight of trucks full of body parts from the World Trade Center, she fulfilled the most selfless of Jewish commandments: to keep watch over the dead, who must not be left alone from the moment of passing until burial. Normally, the Orthodox ritual, known as sitting Shmira, lasts only 24 hours and is performed by one Jew, customarily a man, for another Jew. But these are not normal times. Thus the round-the-clock vigil outside the morgue on First Avenue and 30th Street is already in its eighth week. The three sealed trucks may or may not contain Jewish bodies. And the shomer, or watcher is just as often a young woman as an old man” (A NATION CHALLENGED: VIGIL; Stretching a Jewsih Vigil for the Sept. 11 Dead, Nov. 6, 2001, New York Times).
The lesson from Luke’s Gospel is rarely read in church. It is tucked in the church calendar on the Sunday after Christmas every third year. Since it is so often omitted or lost in the hubbub of post-Christmas morning, I want to suggest that we reclaim it as the overarching word from God that will lead us into Lent.
After the choir of angels, shaggy shepherds, an obstinate Innkeeper, and after Mary ponders all things in her heart, she and Joseph go about doing what good Jews do when there is a birth. These young parents take their firstborn to the Temple for a service of purification.
In the Temple, Joseph and Mary meet an old, religious man by the name of Simeon. Simeon had not seen the Christmas light shine in the sky as did the Magi and had not heard the Christmas cantata the angels sang on that holy night. So, Simeon waited. He waited as he had waited day after day and year after year into his great old age, waited on the fulfillment of God’s promise, waited for God’s promised One to walk through the doors of the Temple.
“Ms. Kaplan, 20, . . . is one of nine students who have volunteered for this solemn task on weekends, working in shifts from Friday afternoons until nightfall on Saturdays, the holiest part of the week . . . Devout Jews cannot ride on the Sabbath, putting the subway or taxis off-limits . . . so the Stern [University] students, [a Jewish women’s college] whose dormitories are within blocks of the morgue, have filled the breach . . . Ms. Kaplan and the others have won blessings from Christian chaplains at the site, and their dedication has moved police officers and medical examiners to tears. The burly state trooper who guards the area has learned the girls’ names.
“At first, the trooper demanded identification, not knowing that carrying anything on the Sabbath was prohibited for Orthodox Jews. Now he keeps an eye on the prayer books and snacks that the Stern students drop off before sundown on Friday and retrieve Saturday night . . . While the tradition is a peculiarly Jewish one, Dr Lamm [president of Yeshiva University] said he felt that the mitzvah, or good deed, reached across the denominations . . . `the loving watching of the corpse [is] a very human act` and noted that the Shmira is the `truest and most sublime` [of the 613 mitzvahs] `because there can never be reciprocity’.”
On one seemingly ordinary Sabbath day, centuries ago, a couple of out-of-town Jewish teenagers walked into the Jerusalem Temple with a baby in tow -hardly an unusual sight in a place as trafficked with visitors as the Temple. No choir of angels pronounced the grand entrance of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. It was the aged shomer, Simeon, whose heart strangely warmed that day, warmed in the special way that happens when you hold on to someone for whom you have waited all your life.
In Hebrew, a shomer is one who stands watch at the watchtower. In Jewish burial ritual, a shomer then is one who watches over a corpse from death until burial, in respect for the dead. Yet, in Luke’s Christmas story, Simeon holds a newborn, fresh from the womb, screaming with new life. He caresses Jesus, still wrapped in swaddling clothes, and then thanks God until he is hoarse with praise. How can Simeon be a shomer?
“The Stern students . . . felt so helpless after the terrorist attacks. They donated money to the Red Cross, but were turned away as blood donors or volunteers because those needs had quickly been met. Then came the pleas for Sabbath shomers. `This is something I can do,’ Ms. Kaplan said. `Ms. Kaplan made up slow, sad tunes for each psalm and sings them in a clear soprano, sweet as birdsong. If she mumbled them without melody, Ms. Kaplan said, she might lose a word here and there and thus the full meaning of each line. By singing, she said, she is fully mindful. `Time completely stops . . . now I understand what is to pray with your heart’.”
Before leaving to make the difficult journey home, Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph and the babe, but it is a blessing that Mary does not write in Jesus’ baby book. “This child,” says Simeon to Mary, “will pierce your soul. In this child, God will bring about the healing of the nations, but the cost will be great, and sometimes more than you can bear.” So, says the shomer Simeon, about whom we know nothing else. His name will never again be uttered by Luke and he does not find his way onto the pages of the other three Gospels or Paul’s letters.
That is the way it is with a shomer, Jew or and Christian. A shomer does not attract the spiritual spotlight. They trust in the final redemptive purpose of God and so they do what is necessary in a time of death. Some sit Shmira in holy silence at ground zero or wherever the latest ground zero happens to be. Some sit Shmira with the guilty and innocent on death row or in the local Hospice or in the family bedroom where death is hovering low. One such shomer prayed without ceasing years ago in a Jerusalem Temple, long after most people would have given up the job or given up on God.
A shomer arrives during times of death and dying, but also in critical times when a holy watch is needed. Since the pandemic, the shomer is often the gowned and masked and gloved nurse or doctor who not only provides medical care to thousands and now near a million souls who have died from Covid in America alone, but who provides them spiritual care as well.
You and I soon will be marked with ashes and stride and sometimes stumble our way through another season of Lent. We will do so until we end the season by sitting Shmira on Holy Saturday. we not only watch in reverence over the deceased, but watch and wait with indubitable hope and unstinting confidence for the final chapter of God’s story to be writ large in every heart, when every child of God can utter with Simeon, “Lord, now let Your servant depart in peace, according to your word. For mine eyes have seen your salvation.”
In the blink of an eye, Lent will be back.
May the holy watch begin.