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.
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.]
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.