Simeon and Anna are two of my favorite biblical characters we encounter during the Christmas season. These two senior adults appear at the temple as Mary and Joseph come to consecrate the infant Jesus (Luke 2:22-40). Simeon is described as a “righteous and devout” man, led by the Holy Spirit who is actively watching for the coming of the Messiah (vv. 25-26). Anna, we are told, is an elderly widow who “worshiped night and day, fasting and praying” (vv. 36-37). Though they don’t hold a prominent place within the gospel narrative, the biblical text makes it clear that these were remarkable people.
I consider myself blessed to be a pastor serving in a richly multigenerational congregation. Our church is made up of a diverse mix of people of all ages, from infants and toddlers to those in their 80s, 90s and beyond. As I look across our sanctuary on Sunday mornings, I see significant numbers of seniors who could be described in terms similar to how Simeon and Anna are depicted in the gospel. Many of these older adults have walked with the Lord for decades. They daily seek the Spirit’s guidance and are eager to continue to experience God at work in the world. These are engaged, prayerful followers of Jesus. It is a privilege to be a part of the family of faith together with these models of long-term faithfulness. They too are remarkable people.
Daily realities can include grief, loss and pain
Even though these Annas and Simeons exude the vibrancy and joy that comes from life in Christ, I know that many older adults also contend daily with the realities of grief, loss and pain in their lives. Some carry a deep sense of loss due to the death of their spouses and friends. A number grieve the limitations brought on by declining mobility, eyesight, hearing or cognitive capacities. Some struggle to come to terms with how the church has changed over the years and with the sense that they don’t have as much influence as they used to. There are those w ho grapple with questions about their life’s purpose. In some cases, the deepest sense of grief centers in broken relationships which remain unresolved.
The Christmas season has a way of bringing these struggles with grief and loss freshly to the surface. For many of us, this season is filled with activity, celebration and togetherness. Yet this time of year can also accentuate feelings of loneliness and pain for many seniors. As I interact with the older adults in my church, I recognize that during this season many of them are carrying griefs.
Knowing this, I find that there is great value in intentionally reaching out to older seniors and striving to include them during the holiday season. There are many simple ways to accomplish this. For example, a few families in my church make a point to invite older adults to join them for their Christmas meal each year. A number of the seniors who receive these invitations would otherwise spend Christmas alone.
The value of time spent with other generations
Significant things can occur when these Annas and Simeons are asked to spend time with people of other generations.
Inclusion: Many older seniors struggle with a sense of isolation in their daily lives. Highly age-segmented approaches to church life can reinforce this sense of isolation, as older adults are hindered from fostering connections with people of other generations. In Scripture, however, we can see God’s heart for including seniors. This is most evident in the passages that express concern for widows. In Deuteronomy, for example, God’s people are encouraged to be intentional about including widows in their festive meals (Deut. 14:29; 16:11, 14).
This concern is reinforced in the New Testament as well (Acts 6:1; James 1:27). From God’s perspective, widows are easily marginalized and, thus, deserving of special care. When we make a point to include Annas and Simeons, we reflect the concern with which God views them and express the care that he desires to see extended to them. We bless them with the gift of human connection and, in turn, are likely to discover that we too are blessed by spending time with them.
Validation: Our society often signals to older seniors that they are viewed as having limited worth. We tend to be obsessed with youthfulness, while dismissing the value of older adults. Sadly, this mindset is sometimes reflected all too uncritically within the life of local churches. Devaluing seniors is at odds with the biblical vision of how younger generations are meant to respond to their elders.
For example, in Lev. 19:32, the people of Israel are instructed: “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly.” When we take intentional steps to include older seniors, we communicate value to them. This shouldn’t be motivated by pity but rather by the recognition that the Annas and Simeons among us have tremendous worth in God’s eyes. They are of great value to the community of faith and worthy of honor. It is a privilege to be used by God to express this validation to them.
Contribution: Seniors sometimes get the impression that we don’t really expect them to have much of importance to contribute. However if we look to Scripture, we find no shortage of accounts of God using older individuals to accomplish his purposes. In fact, a key verse employed in Acts to describe the new era initiated by Christ is one that speaks of “old men” being used as instruments of God’s Spirit (Acts 2:17, citing Joel 2:28).
This tells me we should have an expectation that God wishes to work through the older adults in our midst. Like the psalmist in Psalm 71, many older adults have known God’s faithful presence in their lives since their youth (vv. 15-17) and have many amazing stories to tell the next generation about how they have experienced God at work over the years (v. 18). When we make a point to engage with the Annas and Simeons in our churches, we affirm that they have an important contribution to make, and we put ourselves in a position to receive the benefit of that contribution.
How can we bless the Annas and Simeons within the church during this holiday season? I hope that you will consider this question and invite others to do the same. Though this can be a difficult season for many of the older seniors in our midst, our efforts to include them can express the care, value and affirmation that I believe God desires them to experience. And we are sure to find ourselves blessed through them as well.
Cory Seibel is pastor of Lifelong Faith Formation at Central Baptist Church in Edmonton, Alberta, and affiliate professor of Spiritual Formation at Taylor Seminary, Edmonton. A former faculty member at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, Seibel is a frequent contributor to the CL. He blogs at https://coryseibel.wordpress.com/