In a recent New York Times article, Jeremy Greene of John Hopkins University outlined the psychic impact of the past two tumultuous years on society. He said, “What we are living through now is a new cycle of collective dismay.”
Collective dismay. There is a universal ache for an end to our current distress (Rom. 8:22). The cry “How long, O Lord?” resonates as we navigate a second pandemic-shaped Advent.
Feeling chronically on hold has led me back to the biblical theme of consolation—comfort in the wake of loss or disappointment. In the birth narratives about Jesus, we meet Simeon and Anna, who were also “waiting for consolation” (Luke 2:25). They have much to speak into our context.
Consolation meets us in our powerlessness.
Two things stand out about these characters. First, they were both stellar people. Scripture describes Simeon as being righteous and devout (Luke 2:25). Luke assigns Anna a place among the prophets (v. 36), which simply means, as Dan Darling put it, “she was gifted and unafraid to declare the word of the Lord.”
A second, more mundane, observation is that they were both very old. Simeon knew he was near the end of his time on earth. Anna was 84, well beyond the era’s average life expectancy (v. 37).
While their age might seem incidental, in truth it highlights the limits of their stellar-ness. Despite being above reproach and worthy of admiration, they could not lengthen their own days. Both were aware of their own frailty and their inability to change it.
In other words, they were reaching the end of themselves, which is precisely when Christ shows up. Grace most often appears when we have no resources of our own to meet the need.
A global crisis has a way of highlighting human limits and lack of control. Like many others over the past two years, I have exhausted myself while attempting to “figure out” and strategize a way forward, all to minimal effect. Accepting the powerlessness of the moment has made more room to see God’s hand in it.
Consolation is more about welcome than change.
Luke introduces Simeon with a word that is normally translated as “waiting” (prosdechomenos). But it could also be rendered as “ready to receive to oneself.” The term expresses an eagerness to welcome.
That emphasis transforms the concept of waiting from excruciating endurance to active anticipation. Simeon counted the days until God revealed what he had promised to him personally.
Similarly, Anna had planted herself in God’s presence for decades, turning the grief of a young widow into a lifelong prayer. Waiting on the Lord became her daily practice. Ann Voskamp once wrote, “This waiting on God is the very real work of the people of God.”
My own waiting often feels like impatience and irritation. I grit my teeth and try to just hold on until I can move past whatever my current trial looks like. I want to get out, not welcome in.
What would it look like to shift into a mindset where we are ready to receive more than escape? Our hardships look different through the lenses of curiosity and welcome. We can adopt George MacDonald’s perspective and say, “Come, then, affliction, if my Father wills, and be my frowning friend.”
Simeon’s own name provides a clue how to go about that, because it comes from a word that means “to hear intelligently.” I have far more practice hearing fearfully. Or angrily. Or just half-heartedly. Simeon, on the other hand, is portrayed as deliberately listening to God’s Spirit. We are told that the Holy Spirit rested on him (v. 25), the Holy Spirit showed things to him (v. 26), and the Holy Spirit moved him (v. 27).
Intelligent listening meant that Simeon discerned the difference between his own impulses and the leading of God. It meant being willing to take in the difficult messages and not just what he wanted to hear. And it meant stepping out in obedience, acting on what he heard.
Consolation overturns our expectations.
The outcome of Simeon’s listening is one of the most tender scenes in Scripture: Simeon enters the temple to discover Mary and Joseph with their newborn. Then he picks up baby Jesus (v. 28). He has the distinction of being the only person in the Bible who we are explicitly told held the Christ child in his arms.
In that act, he provided a striking visual of not just meeting Jesus but receiving him unto himself. As Simeon gazed into the brand-new eyes of the Ancient of Days, Christ for him went from being “God with us” to “God with me.” Comfort has no real meaning until general truth takes on concrete, personal dimensions.
Nothing outwardly about Simeon’s life had changed, yet he told God he could die in peace (Luke 2:29). His inner disquiet had been calmed by Christ, and his soul was at rest. Simeon knew the consolation of Israel was not an event or a change, but a person.
Anna responded to Jesus much the same way as Simeon. His sheer existence was the only evidence she needed to recognize God’s redemptive hand. Christ—a baby who couldn’t even walk—became the focal point of her praise.
We pin our hopes on answers more than on the one who answers. We can pray with very specific, singular responses in mind that we’ll accept from God as adequate. When he doesn’t respond according to our narrow guidelines, we despair. Meanwhile, Christ arrives in our distress as wordlessly as a baby, bundled in a form we didn’t see coming.
The church I pastor met in a middle school before the pandemic arrived. Due to the lockdown, we suddenly found ourselves to be a homeless congregation. And we remained so for 18 months. Returning to in-person services this fall felt like starting over. Numbers are still low. Our capacities are reduced. Holiday traditions have been scaled back.
But we are learning how to be present to the smallness of it, ready to receive. And we are embracing vulnerability. With everything stripped away, Christ has made himself known in unforeseen ways through the very limitations we were striving to overcome. It turns out a baby isn’t just small—it’s also precious and wonderful.
Consolation grows in the sharing.
Anna made a point of talking about Jesus to all who were waiting for redemption (v. 38). Again, Luke returns to that word prosdechomenos. The countless crowds Anna tells about Jesus are marked by that same readiness to receive.
Anna didn’t view Jesus as a secret revelation exclusively for her. No possessive stinginess, no scarcity mentality. As in the feeding of the 5,000, the gospel always multiplies itself to fill the hungry crowds with more left to spare. God’s comfort is intended to reach ever outward.
Anna didn’t wait to see how Christ’s life unfolded before spreading the word. She didn’t need to see how things turned out first. And the sharing itself expanded her own joy.
We’re all part of Anna’s audience. Everyone is looking for rescue, for wrongs to be made right, for suffering to be over in these bewildering, beleaguering times. Anna joyfully points us all to the child and repeats her message: He is everything. He is our consolation. And there is no shortage in him, and as Isaiah 9:7 says, no end to the increasing peace he brings.
Jeff Peabody is a writer and lead pastor of New Day Church in Federal Way, Washington.