The following is a story about Jesus and Mary and Joseph, as well as two obscure, but important biblical characters, who are an integral part of the entire Christmas story: Simeon and the prophetess Anna. This beautiful part of the tale was first told by those who witnessed it from a “bird’s eye view:” the Temple birds, who then passed it down, unchanged, to their descendants for over two thousand years. The story is true.
I have heard that if you visit Jerusalem in the present day, and walk through the ruins where the Temple of King Herod the Great once stood, you can still hear the birds that live there now repeat this story, each in their own tongue. I tell it to you now, translated from the words and lyrical notes, as told to me by a kind and obliging sparrow, as it had been told to her.
–Paula Tohline Calhoun
The Temple in Jerusalem, built on the highest elevation of the city, was a place to study and worship God, and make all the sacrifices to the Creator of us all that are prescribed in the Law. It was a beautiful place, built of purest white marble, gold, and precious bronze, that sparkled in the sunlight, and could be seen from great distances. This Temple was built by King Herod the Great, who increased the foundation, size, and majesty of Solomon’s Temple that had been ravaged and looted many years before. Herod spent several years and enormous amounts of money, and used hundreds if not thousands of skilled tradesmen and slaves to build and enhance it, because he wanted Rome to recognize his power, wealth, and authority over Judea. Still, it was the Temple of God, and the Jewish people treated it as such, as did many people of other faiths, out of respect for the God of the Jewish people. Yes, the Temple was a majestic structure, and seemed always to be busy, most especially on High Holy days and other festival times. People came from far and near to worship, pray, learn, and also to pay taxes, tithes, and offerings, as well as engage in tasks not so holy.
There were the assigned daily priests and Levites attending to their duties, who would come and go each day, but there were also a certain number of devoted and devout men and women who lived on the Temple grounds, day and night, by personal choice. Each busied themselves with the upkeep of the many courts of the Temple, wherever they were allowed by their laws to be. Because of their devotion to God, they were never idle, and spent their time in prayer and fasting and whatever they felt called to do in God’s service.
In addition to all the people, there were many other creatures. There was the constant coming and going of the sacrificial animals and birds, as well as the uncaged wild birds who lived out their days nesting in the rafters, and flying in and out around the Temple buildings, going about their daily lives, from one generation to the next. Those wild ones are my ancestors.
The birds were accustomed to the hustle and bustle of the people. They knew some of them thought they were pests, and some enjoyed their company. They had learned, however, that as a rule, humans of either type should be given a wide berth, and so they tried to stay safely out of reach. Despite their precautions, still every season it seemed at least one feathered family or two lost their nests, and sometimes the eggs, from an overzealous human who decided to “clean out the pests once and for all.” However, even the birds understood that some rules had exceptions, and there were two special people who were part of daily life at the Temple who were beloved and respected by all, human and animal. Their names were Anna and Simeon.
Anna was a widow of many years of age, known to be a prophetess. She had lost her husband after only seven years of marriage, and from that time forward she lived her life in the Temple, fasting, praying, and praising God. She was a very kind and generous woman, giving most of what she had to the poor or needy, and she always shared some of her meals with us. She had a beautiful voice, and we birds loved to be near the Women’s Court during services of worship. No one could sing the Psalms as beautifully as she. Her father, named Phanuel, had been a devout man, and unlike many girls’ fathers, had seen that she received an education. She was one of the very few women who was able to follow the order of worship each day. During the services, she always stood at a place close to the railing, over which she could observe the men worshiping in the Court of the Israelites and the Court of the Priests.
Also frequently in the Temple was a kind gentleman named Simeon. He was much revered by the members of the local congregation of men who worshipped daily. It had been said for many years that he was highly favored by God. Through the Holy Spirit, he was promised that he would not die until his eyes had seen the salvation and consolation of Israel. Most of the other men assumed he was waiting to see the downfall of Rome, perhaps brought about by a new and mighty military king for their people. Simeon wisely kept his counsel. He did not feel it was his place to say how God would keep his promise. He only knew that God would, and so he kept himself ready to behold God’s miracle whenever and however it happened.
One of the places in the Temple where both Simeon and Anna spent some of their time was at the gate through which new mothers would come after the sacrificial rite of cleansing, and through which both parents would bring their children to be blessed. Parents of their first-born son were required by law to present that son at 40 days of age to be consecrated and redeemed with a sacrificial offering, because all first-born males belong first to God. The sacrificial offering varied according to the means of the parents, and ranged from a yearling lamb to two turtledoves. Both Anna and Simeon were childless, but their love for children kept them close to these rites. They believed in a future for their people, and wanted to be near to watch the generations as they were presented.
One day, Anna and Simeon were both in the Temple, near the Beautiful Gate that opens from the Court of the Women. For some time, all of Judea had been buzzing and excited about an unusually large star that shone in the heavens both by night and by day. Even the birds knew that something extraordinary was in the making or perhaps had already come to pass, but I don’t believe that any of them knew what that was. Word was that Herod was particularly interested. He feared that perhaps it meant doom for him. Anyway, on this particular day, something wonderful appeared about to happen, something that each in his or her way would never forget, and that will continue to be talked of and sung about until the end of time.
Many of the birds made it a point always to be near either Anna or Simeon. This was not just at meal times! Any time spent with them was peaceful, and they felt safe in their company. Suddenly, those nearest Simeon started to make sounds that drew the attention of Anna and all who heard and understood, either human or bird or beast. Simeon became very excited, and approached with awe a middle-aged man and a young woman, carrying their infant. When my forebears saw the objects of Simeon’s attention, they too knew something special was happening. The parents, apparently of modest means, had offered a pair of turtledoves to the priest as the redemptive sacrifice for their son. The priest took the birds and carried them away to the rough stone altar. This was so hard to witness. The poor small feathered beings trembled in the rough grip of the priest. They struggled slightly, making shrill sounds that were recognized as fearful cries for rescue. Those who had seen such things many times before, did their best to call back to them their own songs of comfort. It was all they could do except be witnesses. Then, all of a sudden, the doves stopped struggling and silenced their cries, and turned their heads toward the door where the family was standing. It seemed that every bit of bustle and noise in the entire Temple ceased. Silence settled over everybody and everything. What was happening? Even the priests slaughtering the animals stopped briefly in their work, because the bellowing, baa-ing, and squawking of the frightened animals had quieted.
All were focused on the entrance to the court where sacrifices were performed. The little boy-child being ransomed from God was lying swaddled in his mother’s arms, and his father stood next to them in a protective posture. The baby was not squirming or crying, and seemed completely calm, and yet alert to everything around him. All of the birds, including the doves caught in the priest’s hands, were acutely aware of something else: the sun seemed to have suddenly emerged from a cloud, because everything within the impromptu tableau was limned in light. For a few seconds the infant’s and the doves’ eyes shimmered in that holy light. The baby smiled at them, and with that smile the doves, already stilled, were at peace and calmly yielded to the knife pulled swiftly and skillfully across their necks. The Temple noise erupted again, and most went back to their own businesses.
It was then that attention returned to Simeon and Anna. After the priest had sprinkled the birds’ blood upon the altar, and handed their bodies over to be burned, he approached the parents and sprinkled some of the blood upon them. The mother then lifted up her child to give to the priest for a blessing. No sooner had the priest held the infant than Simeon rushed forward and took the child into his own arms. There were tears in his eyes and on his face as he started to speak, and most everyone there who heard him remembers what he said. The child’s parents listened in stunned silence as he spoke:
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” *
He kissed the child, and handed him back to his mother. He then spoke a blessing over the family, and turning his face, for a moment, from the child’s eyes, to the mother’s, he spoke these words:
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” **
None of the birds understood the meaning of his words to the mother, but could see that they stirred up great feelings within her, and she held the child all the closer, and the father hugged them both to him. The anxiety on their faces was almost immediately dispelled, because suddenly we heard the soaring beautiful voice of Anna singing out, for all to hear, her praise of the Most High God. Her anthem of praise was heard by everyone in the Temple, and the hearts of many there turned to her words of joy and thanksgiving. Anna moved closer to the couple, and as she sang, she took the child in her arms, and kissed him. Then, after handing him back, she continued her thrilling song:
“O sing to the Lord a new song; sing unto the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of His salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all peoples.” ***
Anna had heard all that Simeon had said, and she, too, was filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit of God. She announced to everyone that God’s promised salvation had come in this child. It was evident even to the birds that all of which Simeon and Anna spoke and sang was true. There was something about that child, and his parents that radiated joy for the whole world. All the birds began to sing God’s praise along with Anna, and we watched her and Simeon, as they followed after the family, and saw them through to the gates that led out of the Temple.
It was just a few short days after this event that we were foraging for food in the Court of the Gentiles. We were surprised to see Simeon and Anna in conversation with one another. It was not the custom of the Jews for a man to speak in public with a woman. But probably Anna’s advanced age and the fact that they both had spotless reputations accounted for the lack of notice by the people milling about the court. Their presence together did not seem to be prearranged. It appeared to be a happy coincidence for them. The birds drew closer so they could hear what was being said as they pecked at the bits of bread that Anna was kindly sharing.
Their conversation sounded rather formal at first. Yet it was evident that their awesome joy over what they had recently shared had not faded in the least. Simeon held up his hands, and with eyes shining, he looked on them in wonder, and said, “Of all people we are surely most blessed! We have held in our own arms God’s promise to the world. Did you see the child’s eyes? Did you notice how he took everything and everyone in?”
Anna answered him with identical excitement. “How could anyone who witnessed such a thing not have noticed? And how could anyone who noticed not shout praise to our Creator? Hardly a moment has passed since we witnessed that family’s Presentation rite that I have not thought of it. It is almost as though I can still feel the weight of that blessed infant in my arms! Glory and great thanksgiving be to God that we were so privileged.” Simeon listened to her as she spoke, and it looked as though the special light that had enveloped them and the family at the ceremony was still shining in them both. They stood for a few moments in silence before going their separate ways.
Later, over the days and weeks that followed, we heard a lot of gossip, among the Jews and Gentiles alike, of the curious and unusual events that were taking place in and around Jerusalem. King Herod was devoting a lot of time and resources in learning details of the visit of three wealthy learned men from the East. It seems that they had been following the strange star that was the number one topic throughout all of Judea. Herod seemed to see the star as an ominous threat to his reign, but most people and the birds saw only a large, bright, and beautiful star. After it was gone, the likes of it were not seen again.
The evening after witnessing Anna and Simeon’s conversation, I was told that the birds gathered in the rafters in family groups, and all were discussing those two, and the family with the baby boy, and the two turtledoves that were sacrificed. For the rest of their lives they would talk with wonder about the happenings in and around the Temple on those momentous days. Perhaps I haven’t emphasized enough the one word that was at the center of all the chatter and gossip. The birds all realized early on that there was something that tied all the stories together. That word is “Light.” There was the wondrous Light of the special star, there was the Light surrounding the family, the Light in the mother’s eyes, and the father’s, the Light around the hands of the priest as he held those poor frightened birds, and most miraculous of all, the Light beaming from the infant directly toward the doves. The way the birds so willingly relaxed in the glow, and were no longer afraid, made the entire act of sacrifice much easier for all of us to bear. And then, of course came Simeon and Anna. The Light shone around them both as they prayed and sang, rejoiced and gave thanks.
And that Light stayed with them for the rest of their days. At the center of every moment there was, as Simeon had said, and Anna declared, “a Light to the Gentiles, and glory for Israel.” They shone with it, they shared it, they passed it on to others. Such portent it held! such Peace, such Joy! It is something all creation is honored and privileged to share, even now, so many generations later: The Light that came for the whole world, the promised Light of Salvation, and they had held Him in their arms.
** Luke 2:34-35
*** Psalms 96:1-3
(All scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version, ©1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America)
“Salvation in Their Arms,” a story by Paula Tohline Calhoun, ©2017
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Illustrations by Ashley M. Calhoun, ©2017
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