Sunday, January 2, 2011

Simeon’s Farewell

Let the infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.

—T.S. Eliot, “A Song for Simeon”

imeon was a venerable old saint who had long awaited “the comforting of Israel” (cf., Isaiah 40:1). The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Anointed.
“By chance,” some would erringly say, Simeon arrived at the temple coincident with Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus. Seeing the child, Simeon took him from his mother, cradled him in his arms, and began to sing:

Now Lord, as you have promised,
you may dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people;
A light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.[1]

Thus Simeon passed off the scene, his small part in the drama well–played, “with peace and consolation dismissed,” Milton said.
Much of what Simeon sang about Jesus came from the Prophet Isaiah, who promised that, “all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God” (Isaiah 52:10). This infant would bring glory to Israel and revelation to the Gentiles spread around the world.
This was surely a moment of great joy for Mary. All mothers know that their children are special, but for Mary, this was a public ratification of what she already knew: that her son’s kingdom, “would have no end”![2] (Luke 1:33).
But Simeon then states a hard fact: though the child was appointed for “the…rise of many,” many would fall—trip over him and curse him in the darkness. He would be slandered, rejected and killed, and Mary herself would suffer excruciating pain.
Simeon’s words reinforce the bitter–sweet quality of the nativity: the story delights us, but we know that the birth of the child will lead to suffering—as do, in fact, all births.
Perhaps that’s why we old folks are strangely moved when we look at snapshots of happy parents cradling a newborn baby, for we know that their child will surely suffer and that a sword will pierce the parent’s souls as well. I’ve been around too long and have seen too much to believe otherwise.
How often have I listened to the stories of old friends and thought back to our youthful naiveté. Little did we know what sufferings we would endure.
I think of a childhood friend whose wife was murdered in a savage invasion of his home, while he was left confined to a wheel chair. Two other friends have challenged children; others have lost their children or seen them damaged in tragic ways. One friend's wife was injured in an accident from which she never fully recovered; others have suffered multiple losses through disease, death, or divorce. In fact, I can think of no childhood friend who has not suffered in a significant way. I recall George Herbert's poignant words, “I cried when I was born and every day shows why.”
“In this world you will have tribulation,” Jesus said, but, he continued, “Be of good cheer!” I must say—as I think of my friends—that despite their challenges they are of good cheer. They sorrow—Christianity is not Stoicism; there’s no virtue in the stiff upper lip—but they do not sorrow as those who have no hope for they have learned that we all share in Jesus’ sufferings, for if nothing else, the Incarnation tells us that at the center of our life is One who has been broken—who, from the cradle to the cross, has been one with us in our pain and loss.
Dorothy Sayers puts it this way: “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is-limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever the game he is playing with His creation, He has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience-the humiliation of the manger, the trivial irritations of family life, the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money, the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death.”
Does God promise that we will not feel pain? Not in this life. Does he feel our pain? The Incarnation is the final, irrefutable proof that he does. We can cast our care upon him knowing that our sufferings matter to him, that he cares, and sometimes that’s all we need to know.
There is great relief in laying our burden down, even briefly, in the presence of someone who understands and cares. Author Margaret Guenther tells of a Scottish pediatrician who comforted her hurt and frightened child, not with medicine, but with a great, enveloping bear hug and the words, “Och, poor wee bairn!” “The poor wee bairn stopped crying at once,” Mrs. Guenther said, “for she realized that another understood her pain and did not seek to minimize it.”
Thus Jesus comforts our broken hearts.

Does Jesus care when my heart is pained too deeply for mirth and song;
As the burdens press and the cares distress, and the way grows weary and long?
O yes, He cares—I know he cares! His Heart is touched with my grief;
When the days are weary, the long nights dreary, I know my Savior cares. —Frank E. Graeff

[1] Simon’s song is known as the Nunc Dimittis, named from its first words in the Latin Vulgate.
[2] The phrase, “no end” can be interpreted both temporally and spatially. The Moravian translation of this text is “without frontiers.”

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