Adapted from “Biblical Meditations for a Blessed Advent: The Nativity Hymns in Luke’s Gospel”
Presented by The Emmaus Institute for Biblical Studies Faculty
December 7, 2019
Greetings, Good Friends. Please allow me to introduce myself.
My name is Šimʿôn. You probably know me as Simeon, and you can read the story I am about to tell you in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, verses 22-35.
Like my namesake, Simeon in the Old Testament, my name derives from šāmaʿ, meaning “to hear.” His parents, Jacob and Leah, named him that because the LORD heard his mother’s affliction and rewarded her with the gift of a son (Gen 29:33). In my case, I have always wondered if my parents might have named me Šimʿôn in hopes that I would grow up to be a man who hears the voice of the Lord. If so, their hopes and aspirations for me were realized.
For now in my old age, people—including the evangelist St. Luke—describe me as “righteous and devout” (v. 25)—a man who lived a life that was oriented to God and in accordance with the will of God, committed, in other words, to hearing and obeying the word of the Lord. In fact, because I listened so closely to what God had said through his prophet Isaiah, I was among the faithful who were “looking for the consolation of Israel” (v. 25; cf. Isa 40:1; 49:13; 51:3; 61:1; 66:13)—waiting and longing for the coming of the Messiah to bring salvation and peace to my people and to the world. That was my consuming focus in life; everything else was secondary.
There’s one more thing you should know about me personally, and then I will stop talking about myself and get on with my story. I do not say this presumptuously or boastfully, but I was a man deeply attuned to God’s presence—“the Holy Spirit was upon [me]” (v. 25), as he was earlier upon Mary (1:35). The Holy Spirit illumined my thoughts, guided my actions, and inspired my words. And like Mary before, I heard when the Spirit spoke, and I obeyed his voice.
And this is where my story begins to get interesting. For you see, “it had been revealed to [me] by the Holy Spirit that I should not see death before I had seen the Lord’s Christ” (v. 26), the promised Messiah, for whose coming I had longed and waited. Mind you, the Spirit did not say simply that I would not die before the Messiah had come, but that I would not “see death” before I had actually seen the Messiah! In case you missed it, that’s a lot of emphasis on seeing. You’ve probably heard it said that “seeing is believing.” For me, it was precisely the other way around: I had long believed in the Lord and in his Holy Word; and it was my believing that led to my seeing—in a more profound way than you might imagine. Let me explain.
As I was introducing myself a few moments ago, I failed to mention that I lived in Jerusalem, not far from the Temple. As you know, that was the place where God was especially present. One day the Holy Spirit directed me to go into the Temple. And so I did. Call it coincidence or call it Providence—I prefer the latter—it just so happened to be the very day when Jesus’ “parents” brought their infant to the Temple “to present him to the Lord . . . according to the custom of the law” (vv. 22, 27). Let me fill in a little of the background.
When Jesus was born to Mary, and Joseph her husband became his foster father, he was born to parents who not only complied with the law of the Lord concerning the rite of a mother’s purification after childbirth, but who actually exceeded its strict requirements. After all, the circumstances of Mary’s conception and Jesus’ birth had not rendered her ritually unclean, as it did under normal conditions of pregnancy and birth. Yet, she and her husband followed the legal regulations just the same, voluntarily, as a model of humility and to avoid scandalizing others. And so they brought to the Temple that day “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” as permitted by the law in the case of the poor (v. 24; cf. Lev 12). (It’s important to note, parenthetically, that he who would one day minister to the poor “came by it naturally,” as we might say. He was born into poverty.)
There was a second reason for Joseph and Mary’s coming to the Temple that day—not only for purification, unnecessary as it was, but also for presentation—to hand over their newborn Son to the Lord, to offer him up completely in the service of God, his Father (v. 22). This too not only accorded with the law of the Lord, but exceeded what was stipulated there (cf. Exod 13). For rather than “redeeming” or “buying back” their Son, so to speak, by paying a small monetary offering to support the Levitical priests in their duties at the Temple—a provision entirely permissible by law—they had brought their Son to the Temple as an act of pure and complete devotion. Although Jesus would return to Nazareth with his parents (v. 39), he would remain wholly and permanently dedicated to God (cf. 1 Sam 2:35; Heb 2:17).
You’re probably getting the impression by now that I was not the only one “righteous and devout” and well-versed in God’s word. Jesus’ parents were carefully devoted to living in full accordance with whatever pleased the Lord, even surpassing the strict requirements of the law—all as an expression of their great love for and desire to please God. “Just the bare minimum” was not a category known to them. They loved the Lord their God with all their heart and with all their soul and with everything they had, including their newborn Son.
Returning then to my story, so there we were in the Temple—the five of us: Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus, myself, and the Holy Spirit who was upon me and who had guided me to the Temple that day.
And now for the moment to which all of this has been building. It was there, in the Temple, that my eyes first fell on “the Lord’s Christ” (v. 26); and receiving him into my arms, knowing him to be the One for whom I had been longing, I offered my song of blessing to God:
“[Nunc dimittis] Now dismiss your servant in peace, O Lord,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
which you have prepared in the presence of all the peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel” (vv. 29-32).
I uttered these words because I knew that when my eyes fell upon the child Jesus, I had seen the salvation of the Lord—exactly as it had been revealed to me by the Holy Spirit, that I would not see death until I had seen the Lord’s Christ. I knew in that moment that the Child now cradled in my arms was not only a future Savior-Deliverer of my people, but the One who embodied salvation itself. To see him was to see salvation. Salvation, in other words, was not just an event or an experience; it was a Person (cf. Lk 3:4-6). And having seen salvation, nothing else mattered. I was prepared to depart in peace—the very peace about which the angels had sung: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased” (Lk 2:14). Humbly, I knew myself to be such a man.
There was more to the words I uttered in blessing to the Lord that day. In fact, every line in my song was pregnant with meaning drawn from the prophecies of Isaiah. My mention of peace, of salvation for all peoples, a light shining on the Gentiles and the glory of Israel—all of these lines and images were drawn from the pages of Isaiah over which I had pored (e.g., Isa 40:3-5; 42:5-6; 46:13; 49:6; 52:9-10; 56:1; 60:1). True to my name, as I previously explained, I had heard the word of the Lord, the Scriptures; and it informed my understanding of the One whose coming I had long anticipated. I had seen the imprint of the Messiah in the words of God’s prophet.
So there we were in the Temple—the Holy Spirit upon me, the Child Jesus in my arms, his parents standing nearby. In that moment, it was clear that heaven had come to earth. What creation longed for was coming to fulfillment. The glorious purposes for which God had called Israel into existence as his covenant people had been realized in their bringing forth the Lord’s Messiah. God had heard the prayerful cries of his people, and light had come to dispel the darkness in which the nations had wandered. In the infant Jesus the glory of the Lord was at long last returning to the Temple in fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy (cf. Ezek 43).
It was a moment like no other—little wonder that Jesus’ father and mother “marveled at what was said about him” (v. 33) in the words of my blessing-song to the Lord. And so I blessed them as well, with an oracle directed specifically to Mary, his mother—a second stanza to my song. Unlike the first stanza, however, this one sounded its ominous notes in a minor key, casting a shadow over the Child’s future. For at the climax of his life, this baby, come of age, would reenter the Temple, this time for the purpose of passing judgment on it and declaring his own body as the new Temple. And shortly thereafter, on the Cross, he would offer that body to the Father in a final Temple sacrifice.
And so, the joy of stanza 1 turned to sorrow in stanza 2, as I warned the infant’s mother of the difficult path that lay ahead for both him and her:
Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel,
and for a sign that is spoken against;
(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also),
in order that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed (vv. 34-35).
Here, too, I drew on what I had read and heard from Isaiah, who prophesied that the Lord would exalt the lowly and bring down the proud (Isa 2:11, 17; cf. Lk 1:52-53), “as a stone of offense, and a rock of stumbling to . . . Israel” (Isa 8:14). Alongside the social upheaval the Messiah would bring, truly his Cross would be a “sign of contradiction”—a sign that works precisely against the mindset and methods of the world, that realizes its objective not through power over, but through power under, and accordingly is opposed, spoken against, contradicted. The Messiah will draw a line in the sand of Israel, causing a division between those who accept him and those who reject him, between those who take the side of God’s mission in the world and those who oppose it, between those who choose and those who refuse the gift of salvation. Such is the scandal of the Cross.
And offering a prophecy, with the Holy Spirit upon me, I warned Mary of what she might already have suspected, that suffering lay ahead for her as well—“a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” The Cross of radical contradiction against the Son would be directed against his mother as well, and it would cut to the heart. And like her Son, who came to his own and his own received him not (Jn 1:11), and who agonized over their refusal to be gathered together, united in him (Lk 13:34-35).
If it seems like a strange and unlikely way to “bless” Jesus’ parents, it would be precisely by means of the sword of pain and anguish, in which Jesus’ mother participated with her Son, that the inmost thoughts of many hearts would be exposed—some accepting, others rejecting. Jesus must suffer, and with him Our Lady of Sorrows, in order that others might see themselves in the light of infinite love and open their hearts to the salvation that comes by way of the Cross.
And so it is that Christmas and the Cross belong together. Without Christmas there could be no Cross, and without the Cross there would be no reason to celebrate Christ-Mass. Without the Cross, the season elicits polite wishes of “Happy Holidays,” except that there is nothing particularly happy, and certainly not holy, about the holi-days unless, like Mary, and Zechariah, and the Angels, and me, Simeon, we tune our ears and eyes and hearts to hear and see and welcome the Messiah, the Savior of the world. But that means letting the sword of the Cross even now penetrate the thoughts and opinions and designs and deliberations of our own souls and bring us, like Mary, to accept its implications. It means that we do not resist and oppose the will of God in our lives, but we embrace the Cross and its contradiction of our worldly values. It means that we receive its redemptive love as the only way of salvation.
And that is what Advent is for—to ensure that we are finding ourselves on Jesus’ and Mary’s side of the dividing sword, so that Christ-Mass becomes more than the anticipation of presents and parties and travels and time off work, but truly the anticipation of the Cross, and beyond the Cross, a renewed surrender to living every day and every moment of every day in anticipation of the second Advent, when Jesus returns and finds us welcoming—as welcoming as when I, Simeon, took the Lord’s Child and cradled him in my arms.
[In the presentation of Jesus in the temple], we are meant to understand that the glory of Yahweh is returning to the temple in the arms of Mary and Joseph, thus fulfilling one of the deepest aspirations of Israel’s people.
Now, there is more to this story than the return of the Lord to his temple. The Son of God, having taken to himself a human nature, is presented to the Father, and thereby the human race is brought back on line. This little baby is the reconciliation of divinity and humanity, is the very essence of temple sacrifice.
At the climax of his life, this baby, now come of age, would enter the temple again. This time, he would pass judgment on it and declare his own body as the new temple. A few days later, on the cross, he would perform the final temple sacrifice, offering himself to the Father, even as he bore the sins of the human race.
The Presentation of Jesus in the temple, perfected on the cross, is re-presented every time the Mass is celebrated. The Presentation of the Lord goes on now in our churches, in our temples. (Bishop Robert Barron, February 2, 2021)