What is your destiny?
Maybe that question sounds silly, like something out of coming-of-age movie where the main character suddenly understands their true identity. Like Frodo realizing that he will be the one to carry the ring to Mordor. Like Harry Potter seeing the significance of his lightning-bolt birth mark.
Like Luke Skywalker being told by Obi-Wan, “You cannot escape your destiny, Luke. You must face Darth Vader again.”
But we are not Frodo or Harry or Luke; we’re just average, every-day people. No one is discussing what actor or actress will play our part in the theatrical retelling of our lives. We have plans for the future, sure; but saving for retirement hardly seems like a “destiny.”
So maybe we’re not wondering about our own destinies. We can still wonder about Jesus’. What was the destiny of this Christ child born to Mary?
Maybe Mary and Joseph were discussing that very question as they made their way to the temple that day. They went as faithful Jews, obediently following the instructions for new mothers in Leviticus 12:1-8: “bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb… If she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering…”
They’ve come with the offering of a poor person for the birth of Christ the King.
It’s not far from Bethlehem to Jerusalem; only about six miles. If modern-day Bethlehem weren’t in Palestine, on the other side of an intimidating concrete wall, it would feel more like a neighborhood of Jerusalem than a distinct town. A six mile walk might be a just long enough walk for new parents to ask each other: Who is this baby that was angelically-predicted and divinely-conceived? Who is he going to grow up to be? What is his destiny?
When they arrive at the Temple, they find two people who know the answer.
The first is Simeon. He is waiting his whole life to meet the Messiah – very literally, because he has been told by the Holy Spirit that he won’t die until this happens. When Mary and Joseph enter the Temple, Simeon grabs Jesus from their arms. I imagine the new parents in a panic, perhaps only calming down when they realize that Simeon knows there’s something special about their child. He says, in part:
“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” (Luke 2:34-5).
This “falling and rising of many in Israel” does not sound like a good destiny. It sounds like the kind of destiny parents would discourage children from pursuing. It’s less like the kindly Obi-Wan Kenobe, and more like the ominous Darth Vader: “Luke, you can destroy the Emperor. He has foreseen this. It is your destiny. Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”
But wait – something doesn’t sound right here. Falling and rising?
Doesn’t it usually go, “rising and falling?” Like, “the rise and fall of the Roman Empire,” something like that?* Things rise and then they fall. They don’t fall and then rise.
I mean, except for seeds. Seeds fall and then rise. Jesus used that example to allude to his own death: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel…”
As James Howell points out: Is this slight verbal difference done intentionally?* Because Jesus would indeed fall and then rise, making the way for all Israel to do the same – and all us Gentiles, too. This is his destiny.
Next on the scene is a woman named Anna. She joins in with Simeon, praising this Jesus-baby. Poor Anna doesn’t have any lines recorded for us, but her presence is an important nod to Jesus’ destiny. In Greek, Anna is “Hannah,” as in the Hannah of 1 Samuel who is barren until she prays and pledges to dedicate her baby to God. The baby she then conceives is the Samuel which God would use to guide Israel into a new age of kings.
This is Jesus’ destiny, too: he is bringing in a new age of a new kind of king. The kind who doesn’t rise and fall, like so many kings of this world. Instead, a king who falls and then rises.
This is his destiny.
This is our destiny, too.
After a certain age, many of us stop thinking about our destinies. In part, this is probably a good thing – or at least it has been for me. As a teenager, I was egocentric enough to think I might have some secret destiny like Frodo or Harry or Luke; hopefully, one that would make me cooler in the eyes of my peers. As an adult, I’m more comfortable in my own skin, and I tend to think less about myself and more about others. I don’t need a special destiny.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t have one. It’s just a different one. A kind of strange one. One that involves falling… and rising.
The Christ child is inviting you to a destiny where you fall. Jesus said that “h e who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). Put another way, we might imagine Jesus telling us, “Put down the world’s standards. Put down your materialism. Put down your competitiveness and hatred and fear. Stop living for self-preservation. Just put it all down.”
Then, once everything we thought was so essential is down and dead, Jesus says, “Good. Now, pick up things like this: Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Goodness. Faithfulness. Gentleness. Self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
“How does that feel? Better? I thought it might. After all – this is your destiny.”
When we accept Christ as our King, we inherit this gift of falling and then rising. It begins now, as soon as we are willing to let die all that self-centered stuff. And it finishes, in grand style, sometime later.
We don’t know for sure when that “later” will be. We don’t know how long we have on this earth until any one of us might fall. Neither do we know how long we have until Christ comes again. But at some point, after we fall – after we all fall – there is a grand rising, a resurrection: “What is sown in perishable, what is raised is imperishable,” Paul writes (1 Corinthians 15:42).
Jesus had a destiny. Simeon saw it. Hannah knew it. Jesus would become a unique kind of king, one who would fall… and then rise.
Because of Jesus, we all have a destiny – not just the Frodos and Harrys and Lukes, but all of us. Not one of us is without a purpose, or without a future. Christ is inviting you: Let the wrong things fall. Let the good things rise. Receive a taste of the great falling and rising that is yet to come.
* See his entry in Feasting on the Word for the gospel lesson on the Sunday after Christmas, Year B.