A first-person sermon for the threshold of a new year, in which the story of Simeon reminds us to be open to all God brings us that’s new.
Yesterday I saw the most extraordinary thing. I’d been at the temple for several hours. I’d been at my prayers for some time, intoning those Hebrew words that run through our minds as easily as blood through the veins, nodding to the other old men I see — and, if truth be told, dozing a bit. I make it a practice to go to the temple each morning, although the cracking of my knees as I rise from my bed makes it all too plain how much more comfortable it would be to stay at home.
I do make the trip, though, leaning on my staff. I imagine what the other people must think as I pass them by: “There goes old Simeon, looking every bit as ancient as Father Abraham!”
I make that journey because I don’t want to miss what could happen one day, there in the temple. On this day — praise the Highest! — it did.
I haven’t spoken of this to many others: it’s not the sort of subject you bring up with someone you’ve just met. They may think you are a few denarii short of a full purse, if you know what I mean. On that blessed day, I was busy with my prayers as usual, when my mind started to wander. I’ve been at this business of prayer long enough to know it’s never a straight-line journey. Your thoughts wander in and out of the mind’s narrow alleyways. Occasionally, you encounter something you never expected to find.
That’s how it happened to me. I’d been looking at my hands — marveling at how bony and age-spotted they’ve become — when my thoughts wandered to the subject of my own death.
I felt a sadness come upon me; a sadness not so much at the fact of my death — which surely cannot be far off — but a sadness at how many of those prayers of mine seem to be a lone voice echoing in a barren chamber.
Mostly I felt sad about the coming of the Messiah. For so many years have I prayed — along with the rest of Israel — that his arrival would not be long delayed. I’ve always imagined that one day, these old eyes would behold him.
On that day, I knew it for certain. Don’t ask me how, but I’ve always felt the Most High had a purpose in allowing me to live so long. I’ve come to believe the Lord was giving me the privilege of seeing the long-expected One. Call me a foolish old man, but the longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve become convinced that this — and this alone — is why I’m still here.
Some who reach my age take little interest in the lives of the young: but you know me, I’ve always smiled upon the rising generations. Standing on the steps outside the temple, there’s nothing I like better than to watch the young parents as they carry their firstborn sons in for the ceremony of dedication. So full of hope and joy are they! It’s a proud, proud moment for them.
I’ve seen joy on their faces as they lead in the chosen lamb for sacrifice — a perfect, pure-white beast. Not every family can afford such a lamb — but every couple gathers up their coins to buy one if they can. The dedication of a firstborn son is no occasion for frugality.
But back to the present. My prayers had ended, and I was slowly making my way outside, when I saw them: a mother carrying her little baby, her husband by her side. The father was leading no little white lamb: he carried, instead, a battered wooden cage with a couple of turtledoves inside. The presence of those cooing birds said it all: for you remember how the Law of Moses, in its abundant mercy, makes allowances for the poorest of the poor. Those two birds fulfill the minimum requirement. A poor man’s offering, no doubt about it.
Yet there was something about this couple — ordinary as they were — that made my eyes linger on them. The mother was so very young, but there was a sort of peace reflected in her face. She averted her eyes from mine, as all virtuous women do, but before she did, I caught in them a glint of something I can only describe as holy.
As for the father, he showed no self-consciousness at bearing such a paltry offering. Clearly, for him it was all about his wife and his infant son: that was plain to see.
I walked over to them. Leaning my staff against a pillar, I reached out my hands to the young mother. Without a word, she handed the child over to me. So trusting! It was almost as though she had expected to see me.
Now that I think of it, perhaps that’s what I’ve always been doing, in the temple: waiting for them to arrive.
He was a tiny thing. He slept on, so peacefully, all the time I held him. If you ask me how I knew he was the One, I can’t tell you, exactly. The best I can say is that I felt a kind of joy. It started somewhere in the deepest part of me and radiated outwards. My hands no longer shook, my knees no longer ached: and I think I stood straighter than I had for many a year.
I don’t recall where the words came from, but suddenly I heard myself speaking:
“Master,” I prayed to the Lord,
“now you can release your servant;
release me in peace as you promised.
For with my own eyes have I seen your salvation;
now it is out in the open for everyone to see:
A God-revealing light to all the nations,
and of everlasting glory for your people Israel.”1
His parents looked surprised. Clearly, they’d expected no such oration. But neither did they move to take the child from me. For that I was grateful. I had the distinct feeling that these two had seen far stranger things in recent days than an old man waxing poetic over the miracle of a child.
I offered them the traditional blessing. Then I turned to the mother to give the child back. For the first time, she looked me full in the face.
I was struck, just then, by the beauty of her spirit. But I could also detect a kind of sadness there, lingering in those eyes that seemed both young and lively and — at the same time — as old as creation.
“This child,” I said to her,
“marks both the failure and
the recovery of many in Israel,
A figure misunderstood and contradicted —
the pain of a sword-thrust through you —
But the rejection will force honesty,
as God reveals who they really are.”
I felt the need to warn her, somehow: warn her that, as the mother of this particular child, her path would not be easy. But I think she knew it already.
Then I looked up and saw old Anna coming forward. Anna spent her days in the women’s section of the temple, as I spent my days in the men’s. Rarely had we spoken — that would have been unseemly — but as we passed each other by, now and again we would catch each other’s eye. We were kindred spirits.
Anna, too, approached this child, as though something had drawn her there. I saw tears in her old eyes (as I suppose there were in mine). She, too, offered up words of prayer. Then she began to beckon to others — as though to say, “Come and see: see this child for whom we have waited!”
Surely those others thought she was daft: making such a fuss over this little family. But it did my heart good to see her, to know someone else had seen it too: God’s love wrapped up in human flesh.
It’s plain for anyone to see that my days are nearly ended — as are Anna’s, too, I suppose. You who are younger may imagine it makes me sad to admit such a thing. But that’s not the way of it. I have dwelt in the presence of the Lord my whole life long. I know it is no sad thing to witness the passing of the old. Far sadder would it be for the old to hang on forever.
Isaiah the prophet knew this, I am quite certain. He spoke for the Lord when he wrote, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”2
Again, the prophet writes, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.”3 Isaiah 62:1.
Blessed am I among all God’s people: for with my own eyes have I seen this salvation! If you keep your eyes open, and your heart pure, perhaps you may see it as well.
1 Scripture passages from the Song of Simeon are adapted from Eugene Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (NavPress, 2003), Luke 2:29-35.
2 Isaiah 43:18-19a.
3 Isaiah 62:1.