Monday, February 2, 2009
The Man Who Hoped
There's a story about a Methodist bishop, Bishop Welch, when he turned 101 years old. He was asked if he didn't think a lot about dying. Not at all, he replied, When was the last time you heard of a Methodist bishop dying at 101? That's hopefulness!
Today the Episcopal Church celebrates the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple. The story, found in Luke 2:22-40, speaks of a man of hope: Simeon. Though there's nothing in the text to confirm it, it's possible that he was an older man. Indeed, his voicing of the song, which we know as the hymn for Compline, the Nunc Dimittis (At last you give leave...), suggests this. Artists have depicted him as a venerable, white-haired elder, with clear, alert sparkling eyes, alert because he's waiting and watching. (See picture to the left: Entry to Temple, The Coptic Network Picture Archive)
Simeon appears but briefly on Luke's pages. It was popularly believed that "Simeon" derived from shama Yahweh = Yahweh has heard. The story says he was in Jerusalem, presumably as a resident, though he might have been a pilgrim. Luke describes him as righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and says that the Holy Spirit was upon him. It seems that Simeon had been given God's assurance that he wouldn't die before seeing the Anointed One, the Messiah. On just this day, at this time, when Mary and Joseph were bringing their newborn son to the temple to carry out the rituals of the Law as observant Jews, Simeon had felt the Spirit's urging to go there also.
We're not clear on how he finally recognized them, but when he did, he took the baby in his arms and blessed God:
God, at last you have given your servant leave
to go in peace as you have promised:
With my own eyes I have seen the Savior,
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A Light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people, Israel.
And his father and his mother, Luke tells us, were surprised at these words... Simeon blesses them, then speaks to Mary those cryptic words about her son's destiny and about the sufferings she will experience. And that's it! We don't ever hear of Simeon again.
Perhaps there are several messages here, as simple and unassuming as Simeon himself was. As Christians, once we have accepted Jesus Christ through our baptismal commitment, we no longer have to prove anything to anyone. We don't have to be handsome or beautiful, or brilliant, or efficient, or physically strong, or rich and powerful, or famous. Our value, as a person who is in Christ is: 1) in being who and what our baptismal covenant call us to be: righteous, i.e., right with God, with our neighbor, and with our self -- certainly never self-righteous; and 2) devout: in Greek, eulabes = taking or receiving well, being circumspect or looking around, catching on well.
Simeon also helps us appreciate the importance of the unseen, the unclear. He doesn't fall into the trap of believing that the only reality is what you perceive with the senses. There's always something more to see and learn in the depths of people and situations in our lives. How many folks in the temple with Simeon that day saw only another couple and a baby? God is a God of surprises, always seeming to pop up, revealing Godself, in unexpected places and people and events where we'd never think or bother to look on our own.
Contrary to some popular notions through the ages, Simeon knew that God wasn't a God out there or up there. Simeon recognized God as present everywhere, all pervasive, in his own heart and life. He was in touch with God through the Spirit. You might think of Simeon as a sort of preview of Pentecost.
Finally, because of the Holy Spirit's presence and promise, Simeon could hope. Can you imagine how preoccupied he must have been with the Spirit's inner assurance that he'd live to see the Messiah of God? Can you visualize how he must have greeted each new morning? How often must Simeon have prayed with longing that verse from Psalm 118: On this day the Holy One has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it! Perhaps today will be the day!
The Spirit's promise enabled Simeon to go on hoping and to look to the future despite the troubled society and times in which he lived: with Roman occupiers who had defeated his people and taken over the land; knowing that Herod the King had defiled God's law in killing off every possible rival to the throne, even his own sons and wife; being fully aware of the corruption among the priestly and religious leaders; living in an atmosphere of daily threat from criminals who infested the roads and highways. Yet Simeon trusted God's Spirit who communicated and confirmed God's promises to save: Behold, I send my messenger...the One whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple...the messenger of the covenant... behold, he is coming...(Malachi 3:1-4) Those same promises have been given to us. It would be a shame to treat them, as we so often do, simply as nice, inspiring words on a printed page. Just as Simeon, we need to allow ourselves to be in-spired, breathed into, by God's wind/breath/Spirit given to us in Baptism. The Spirit needs to be given free reign in our lives, so that we can come to how real those promises are for us.
Simeon received a promise. He prayed, and watched, and hoped. And what happened? An old man got to hold a baby. It's always a big deal in a family, you know, to hold a baby. Everyone takes turns and passes the baby around, while making varying degrees of unintelligible and inane sounds and faces! Somebody with a camera says, Smile!, and the baby frowns as the flash goes off, then laughs.
There were no cameras that day in the temple, no crowds of family and friends making over the child. Just Mary and Joseph, ordinary parents, and this old man, Simeon, holding the baby, the Promised One, the One called Jeshua, Yahweh saves.
Oh, and Anna the prophetess, too; but that's a story for another time!