Monday, December 19, 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"

Simeon was a venerable, old saint that had long waited "the consolation 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 Messiah.

"By chance," some would 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.

Thus Simeon passes 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 salvation to the entire earth.

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." (Luke 1:33.[1]
But Simeon then states a hard fact: though the child was appointed for ”rise of many," many would fall—They would trip over him and curse him in their frustration. 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 and death, as do, in fact, all births. Beyond the cave in which Jesus was born we see the shadowed outlines of the cave in which he was buried.

[I think of the irony in an old Christmas episode of The Simpsons, in which the character playing one of the wise men admits to re-gifting the myrrh he's brought for baby Jesus, "because," he argues, “Nobody needs myrrh!” No one but One who must suffer and die.[2]]
Perhaps that's why we old folks are strangely moved when we look at happy parents cradling a newborn baby, for we know that their child will surely suffer and that a sword will pierce their hearts 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 friend who has not suffered in a significant way. I think of George Herbert's poignant words, "I cried when I was born and every day shows why."

"In this world you will have trouble," Jesus said, but, he said, "Be of good cheer!" I must say—as I think of my friends— 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. This is our consolation.

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 suffering matters to him, 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 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 consoles our broken hearts.

I, like Simeon, have grown old, but I have lived to see the Lord’s Messiah. And I too have seen that he is indeed our consolation.


[1] The phrase, "no end" can be interpreted both temporally and spatially. The Moravian translation of this text is "without frontiers."
[2] Myrrh was an expensive spice used to embalm the dead.
Growing Old With God

Anna was old—waiting for “the death wind,” T. S. Eliot said. She had lived with a husband seven years after her marriage, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. Anna never missed a service at the temple, worshipping night and day (Luke 2:36–38).

Anna had grown old with God, the alternative to which is to grow old without him, the end of which is boredom, futility of existence and effort

Growing old is not for sissies, as they say. It’s often overclouded by the multiple losses to which aging is susceptible—separation, bereavement, physical and mental decline. These blows can fall on us at any time, but they seem to fall heaviest in our latter years.

There’s no way to shield ourselves from the difficulties encountered as we age, but our last years can be happy, productive years, years of growth in grace and beauty, if we give ourselves to developing the inward life of the soul.

Age breaks down our strength and energy and strips us of our busyness so we have more time to develop intimacy with God. Far from frustrating God’s best in us the weakness and limitations of age enable us to grow to full maturity. The end of the process is body and spirit united—one in loving God and others. Without the limitations of old age we could never make the most of our lives.

I recall a man saying that long aging and years of weakness and failing health had made his life worth living. “How awful it would have been if, instead of getting old, I’d been extinguished in middle age without learning what God has to offer.”

The senior years can be viewed as a pleasantly useless era where we qualify for Social Security, AARP and senior discounts and have a lot of free time to do nothing at all, or they can be a time of great usefulness to God. There’s much left to do!

We can serve as mentors and conservators of wisdom and virtue, the essential role elders play in society and in the church—grand old men and women who point out the ancient paths and show young believers how to walk in them (cf., Jeremiah 6:16).

Furthermore, there is the power of an ordinary life lived with an awareness of God’s presence, seeing him in everything and doing all things for him. Teresa of Avila found God in her kitchen walking among the pots and pans. Brother Lawrence, the author of Practicing the Presence of God, saw God in his mundane tasks in a monastic scullery. This is the mark of the mature soul, quietly, humbly going about his or her homely tasks, living in joy and leaving behind the sweet fragrance of Jesus’ love.

By God’s grace, we can grow sweeter as the days go by, easier to live with, more delightful to be around. Izaak Walton, wrote of an old companion: “How comforting it is to see a cheerful and contented old age…after being tempest–tossed through life, safely moored in a snug and quiet harbor in the evening of his days! His happiness sprung from within himself and was independent of external circumstances, for he had that inexhaustible good nature which is the most precious gift of Heaven, spreading itself like oil over the troubled sea of thought, and keeping the mind smooth and equable in the roughest weather.” This is the mind that is stayed on God.

Even when our journey leads into illness and weakness and we’re confined to our homes and then our beds, our years of fruitful activity are not over. Like Anna, we can worship and pray night and day. Prayer is the special privilege of infirmity and in the end its greatest contribution.

And we can love. Love remains our last and best gift to God and to others. As St. John of the Cross wrote, “Now I guard no flock, nor have I any office. Now my work is in loving alone” (A Spiritual Canticle).

Prayer and love. These are the mighty works of the elderly.

And then, on ahead, there is the resurrection of our worn out bodies, what ancient spiritual writers called athanasias pharmakon (the medicine of immortality), God’s cure for all that ails us. This is God’s loving purpose for us beyond all earthly existence—“that when this mildew age, has dried away, our hearts will beat again as young and strong and gay” (MacDonald).

This is our hope and, I must say, the most cherished article of my creed.

The soul's dark cottage, batter'd and decay'd,
Lets in new light through chinks that Time has made;
Stronger by weakness, wiser, men become
As they draw near their eternal home.

—Edmund Waller (1606-1687) 

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