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"Rite of Passage"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 26, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Luke 2:21-40

Years ago, I was at an event in a school gym. There was a stage on one side, and near the stage several young children were running around playing tag. Most of the adults were standing around mingling, the buzz of their conversations bouncing off the cinder block walls of the gym. A tall man steps up on the stage and takes the microphone; he calls for our attention. He says his name is Zeke and proceeds to give us instructions on an activity of which we will all be part. Zeke instructs the younger children to line up in front of the stage. Then he has us adults and older youth who are present create a human passageway for them like a set of train tracks, meandering back and forth from one end of the gym to the other. I find myself standing on one side of the passageway, shoulder to shoulder with a curving line of about 80 people.

Facing us an arm's length of way, there's a parallel line of people forming the other sidewall of what is becoming a human tunnel. Zeke instructs us to reach out our hands and lean in to one another, palm to palm. Then he cues the music and starts calling the names of the younger children who proceed one by one to cross the threshold into the passageway that we have become for them. This event happened 12 years ago, but I can close my eyes and still see those kids running through that living passageway of arms and legs and smiling faces. It was a very simple activity, but if you could have seen their faces, you would've thought that they were on the ride of their lives.

That event was what could be called "rite of passage" for those children. The phrase rite of passage was introduced by a sociologist named Arnold van Gennep back in 1909. That's rite, spelled r-i-t-e, as in ritual or custom or practice, and passage as in a journey, a passing from one place to the next. Rites of passage are common because life comes at us in succession, in a series of stages. First tooth, first solid food, first haircut, first step, and so on. Throughout our lives, we cross thresholds into new, unexplored, unknown territory. Sometimes it's into expected new territory such as entering adulthood, starting a job, marriage, parenthood, promotion, retirement. Other times it's an unexpected turn: a downsizing, a demotion, disability, depression, divorce, death. Whether expected or unexpected, crossing a threshold can become a crisis. The life we knew comes to an end, something different starts.

To help guide us, to walk with us through these transitions so that we don't go through them on our own, human cultures have created rites of passage. For example, going to school, education is a rite of passage. So is bootcamp for the military, onboarding at a new company, attending a funeral, joining a support group, entering an assisted-living facility. We have rites of passage because there's always another threshold to cross. Life doesn't stop. And then there's death. Arnold van Gennep, who wrote the book on rites of passage, said that when someone crosses a threshold, they unite themselves to a new world. Yesterday, people all around the world celebrated Christmas. For Christians, Christmas reminds us of the ultimate threshold crossing. Christians celebrate Christmas because we believe God crossed the threshold. God united Himself to our world. God, the Creator of our world who is eternal and stands outside of our world, permanently crossed the threshold and became part of our world.

God became one of us. God did this, not because He had to, but because He wanted to. He wanted to save us. To save us? To save us from what? To save us from death. Some people believe that death is a natural threshold. Maybe it's a bridge that brings us into a spirit world, or maybe it's just our natural ending with nothing beyond it. But the people who retold and recorded the events of the first Christmas believed otherwise. They believed death was a sign, that the whole human race had taken a wrong turn and we had gotten ourselves lost, deceived by the devil. We turned away from Creator. We crossed a threshold into distrust of God, a dark territory that descends deeper and deeper downward into suffering, death, and separation from God.

But God, in His love for us, began redirecting the human race. He started with a smaller group, a focus group, a chosen people: the people of Israel. God was working through Israel to create a way out of this dead end, a way back to Himself. In the law, God gave His people Israel many rites of passage to guide them across this threshold from distrust to faith in God. For example, circumcision was rite of passage. It was the sign that they were God's people, chosen to bless all the families of the world. And there was the sacrifice to redeem the firstborn male of every family, which God gave them to commemorate how He had set them free from slavery in Egypt and brought them into the land He had promised them so that they could be a light for the world. And there were the regular pilgrimages to God's temple in Jerusalem to keep them praying and looking forward to the day when God Himself would come and save the world from death.

But what they couldn't yet see was the greater purpose God had for all of these rites. They were like a long meandering path, pointing to the moment when God Himself would cross the threshold to be with them, to be one of them. And it happened. God's Word, God's eternal Son was born in Israel. He was given the Name Jesus. He went through Israel's rites of passage. He became one of them. He adopted their mission to be the light of the world. He answered their call to be the hope of the nations. He became the way back to God. He would even cross the threshold of death so that we would live again.

Listen to how this scene says it from the Bible, from the Gospel according to Luke 2:21.

And on the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise Him, He was named Jesus, the Name the angel had given Him before He had been conceived. Now, when the days of their purification were completed, according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took Him to Jerusalem, to present Him to the Lord. As it is written in the law of the Lord: "every first-born male will be called holy to the Lord." They also went to offer the sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the law of the Lord: "a pair of doves or two young pigeons."

Now look, in Jerusalem there was a man by the name of Simeon. He was a righteous man and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had had seen the Lord's Christ, the Messiah. Moved by the Holy Spirit, he went into the temple courts and when the parents had brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, Simeon took Him in his arms and blessed God and said, "Sovereign Lord, according to Your Word, You now dismiss Your servant in peace because my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all people, a light of revelation for the Gentile nations and glory for Your people, Israel."

And the Child's father and mother were amazed at what was said about Him, and Simeon blessed them also. And he said to Mary, His mother, behold, this One is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and will be a sign that is spoken against and a sword will pierce your own soul, so the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed."

And there was Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher. She was well along in years. She had lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage. And then as a widow until she was 84. She never left the temple, but worshiped day and night, fasting and praying. And she, coming up to them at that very hour, likewise began to thank God and to speak of the Child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. And after Joseph and Mary had completed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth. And the Child grew and was made strong and was filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon Him.

Human cultures have devised many different rites of passage, and they often involve pain, discomfort, or even outright suffering. There are the extreme examples, the humiliations that come with pledging a fraternity or a sorority, the exertions of basic military training, or the isolation of Aboriginal adolescents who go on walkabout alone in the wilderness for months. But there are many forms of socially induced suffering that humans willingly undergo to mark off a new stage in life—body piercings and tattoos, an all-night study session to pass a final test, or the senseless suffering all too frequently associated with 21st birthday parties. People have made some rites of passage painful because the life transition is itself painful.

As long as you live, there is always another threshold to cross. Just when you've gotten comfortable in a place or in a role, you're pushed off step into something different, unknown, unexplored. And each transition you suffer is another step closer to death.

The message of the Bible for you is not only that your suffering and death are finally result of your separation and rebellion from God. More importantly, the message is that God has taken your suffering onto Himself. Whether you're as old as Anna and Simeon, or you're just getting started, Jesus from His birth in Bethlehem to His death on the cross, Jesus passed through the full range of your experience as a lost and condemned human being. And He rose from the dead so that you could have the full range of His experience as a beloved, Holy Spirit-filled, child of God.

See, Jesus didn't just go through rites of passage. Jesus has become our rite of passage in Person. He became one of us so that we could become one of His. By faith, every threshold we cross, we cross in Him, with Him and through Him. Take Baptism, for example. When we are baptized, the Bible says that we are baptized into Jesus, into His death and new life. Jesus is our all-embracing rite of passage, He stands with us, walks with us, guides us across that threshold from distrust to faith in God. For us, life is no longer defined by a series of passages from one stage to the next, ending in death. Our life is defined by Jesus. We were crucified with Him. We died to that old world. We started new with Him in a life that will never end. And now, in every stage of this mortal life, what was said of Him can be said of us. God's Child grew, was made strong, filled with wisdom and in the favor of God.

See, our lives are no longer defined by our latest transitions. Whatever threshold we're crossing because of Jesus, let it be said of us—God's child grew and was made strong, filled with wisdom and in the favor of God.

I knew a man named John. Shortly after John and his wife, Eunice, retired, Eunice developed a form of dementia. As it worsened, John noticed that every few weeks it seemed Eunice had crossed another threshold—regressing, becoming less capable, less conversant, less able to respond to his love. John was caring for his wife as though she were a child—but not his child—God's child. She was only the shell of the person he had married. But John trusted that in Jesus, Eunice was and always will be God's child, like him, growing, growing strong, filled with wisdom and in the favor of God.

Human societies create rites of passage so that people won't have to cross these thresholds on their own. But God has given us Jesus. When Jesus becomes our all-embracing rite of passage, He brings us into His body, into His family, into His church. The event that I described to you at the beginning with the children running their race through a human passageway, that was a Sunday school rally at a local church. That was Jesus' body growing strong, filled with wisdom and the favor of God, in which you and I are a part. And one day when Jesus returns in glory, we'll look back on all these transitions, even when we stood at the threshold of death and we'll say, "That was just the beginning of the ride of our life."

Please pray with me. Lord Jesus Christ, in You I have been crucified, and it is no longer I who live, but You live in me. The life I now live, let me live by faith in You and in love for others because You loved me and gave Yourself for me. Amen.

No Reflections for December 26, 2021

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"O Lord, How Shall I Meet You" by Paul Gerhardt & Johann Crüger. From Heirs of the Reformation: Treasures of the Singing Church (© 2008 Concordia Publishing House)

"We Praise, O Christ, Your Holy Name" by Martin Luther. From Martin Luther: Hymns, Ballads, Chants, Truth (© 2004 Concordia Publishing House)

"As with Gladness Men of Old" arr. Walter Pelz. From Hymns for All Saints: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany (© 2005 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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