The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
Perhaps the old man simply turned around and there they were. Possibly he had seen them from a distance. In any event, he took notice of them and was drawn close enough to speak with them. He mentioned nothing of the angels, or of the shepherds. He didn’t even mention the conjunction of stars or planets or anything of news about the heavens.
He had seen something else, and he drew closer to what he saw. What he saw beckoned him.
Joseph and Mary, obedient to the Law, had brought Jesus to the Temple. Forty days had passed since the night of the boy’s birth, and it was now time for his redemption. Simeon had witnessed the scene of young parents before. He may even have been moved by the faithfulness of young parenthood in the past. On this occasion he spoke. And we know what he said.
What Simeon said to Mary and Joseph gives us a glimpse of the kind of man he was. As he spoke, Mary and Joseph may have listened with respect, but parting company they may have known only confusion. Had this old man heard? Did he know of the shepherds? Had news of angels heralding the birth been broadcast in Bethlehem? And had the news escaped the City of David? He hadn’t mentioned any of this. They contained their curiosity and continued with the redemption of their son, and the mother’s purification.
We continue to recite Simeon’s words – we have come to know it as Simeon’s Song, and it holds a place of honour in our evening worship. The Book of Common Prayer turns a phrase differently: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…” he began. “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” Simeon hoped for peace and he counted on salvation.
Simeon’s day was dark, and salvation was urgently looked for. For years, he had attended Temple faithfully, obediently. Torah was written on his heart and the phylacteries allowed his single-mindedness of God’s ageless purpose. But the presence of the Consul and the Roman Legionnaires patrolling Jerusalem demonstrated that the Eternal City had eclipsed the Holy City. Eternity supplanted Holiness. It had become more treasured somehow, more dependable in an age that valued power and success and position.
Simeon had expected that Death would call but Shalom would not be heard. The Pax Romana did not touch his spirit – a spirit that yearned for the Shalom of God. Now he beheld an infant – not much older than Moses would have been when his arc was placed adrift in a bygone age. The hope Simeon invested in Jesus was not in response to shepherds or angels or stars – but the yearning for Peace – a peace passing the understanding of men – the Shalom of God given as a promise, a covenant. These infant hands now grasping his old fingers, pulling playfully and attentively would one day grasp iron in a struggle to establish Shalom. Simeon was prepared to die peacefully now, only hopeful for the day of redemption. He saw in this boy soon to be redeemed, the redemption of Jew and Greek, of bond and free, of men and women. Gentiles would be enlightened and Israel would be honoured. The redeemed would be the redeemer of God.
The arms that this Prince of Peace took up were made of iron. They were recognized as nails.
We seem to have forgotten that peace is the character of the Messiah – the Christ – and that as his followers we are to reflect that peace in our lives. Simeon’s Song is still sung today because his insight was true and timeless. Every generation has yearned for what Simeon had seen. We have even echoed his words. What we need is to make them our own.
Our reluctance to make Simeon’s words our own challenges our journey of faith. Today we are all too quick to justify our blood thirst and xenophobia. We are all too quick to plead our self-righteousness. Simeon, not claiming faithfulness attributed to him, saw in the present moment the redemptive activity of God. We need to see that as well.
Some are eager to enlist in a righteous war. Threat is as real today as when Jesus was born and when Moses’ basket was launched onto the Nile. Darkness abounds and light is in demand.
For the shadows cast by the eclipse of truth are few and fear abounds, here as there, now as then.
Simeon’s epiphany is as contemporary as today’s CNN report. We need to echo him again.
Copyright © 2003 James T. Irvine