“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32; KJV)
Simeon is mentioned in just 10 verses of the Bible, and only in Luke’s gospel. The timing is eight days after Jesus’ birth. As was customary, his parents brought their new child to the temple for dedication. And there is Simeon, just waiting. Waiting for what, we don’t know. It had simply been revealed to him that before he died he would see the Lord’s Messiah, the consolation of all Israel. But I wonder, could Simeon have imagined that the savior of the nations would come as a baby?
Yet, when the infant arrives Simeon immediately knows. He recognizes the Child Jesus for who he really is, and sings out praise to God in the words written above.
But how did he know? That is the part that has captivated my thoughts for some time. Did Jesus look different from other eight-day-old babies? Was there a glowing halo around his head as the Renaissance painters portray? What was it about this child that made Simeon so certain, so hopeful as he was in his presence?
Putting this story in context we realize this is how they all respond. The shepherds upon showing up at the baby’s bedside amaze many by telling many what they had seen. The prophetess Anna, also in the temple, heaps praises upon the child and pronounces his future redemptive work. The Magi (Wise Men) themselves being royalty bow down and worship the child when they see him. John the Baptist, as a not-yet-fetus leaps in his mother’s womb in the presence of the Christ.
So what actually was happening for all these people? What were they experiencing and seeing that moved them in such powerful ways? Wasn’t Jesus as a baby just like any other?
Yes, but also no.
We are told that Jesus was fully man, born of a woman, raised in ordinary circumstances. He is never described as anything but a child like any other. Yet there seems to be something about being in his presence. Something powerful and life-altering.
Every now and then in a worship service or a concert will move me in such a way that I feel transported to another place. At other times it is reading a really good book, or a particularly powerful movie that seems to connect to some deeper sentiment or truth about our lives. Then there are those life experiences – I think of my wedding day, the births of my two children, or some of the best holiday celebrations I have been part of that have made me feel, just for a moment, that everything is right in the world.
Maybe you have had similar experiences. And maybe something like that, but greater, caused Simeon to sing out, the Shepherds to proclaim, and the Magi to bow in worship. There must have been something about being in his presence, something otherworldly and true.
C.S. Lewis wrestled with this in his Weight of Glory suggesting we all have a longing for something that we can’t quite find in this world. Every now and then we may brush up against it, but it never lasts or lives up to what we wish. Lewis put it like this:
Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter…. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust in them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
In our very best moments, such as being captivated by a worship service, experiencing beauty in music, the love of a companion, we may feel that we have come in contact with something great, something we wish we could hold onto or make to last forever. But nothing ever does. Even as we pray, commune, or sing praises to God, we may feel the hint of his presence, yet long for more.
I think that is what this season is about. It is realizing that God’s presence is with us, and will eventually be more fully. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a few were privileged to meet him and come in contact with the Christ. They knew his presence, if only for a moment. Still today I think that we get glimpses – here and there sensing God with us in this world – often longing for more as we should. And, every now and then we may feel blessed to have a unique experience.
A story is told of John Coltrane who seems to have had such a moment. In 1957 Coltrane had had a near-death drug overdose, later acknowledging that in the days following he had a “spiritual awakening which lead to a richer, fuller, and more productive life.” (Original Liner Notes, A Love Supreme)
Years later after one utterly extraordinary live rendition of his masterwork “A Love Supreme,” when the audience, the musicians, and the music all seemed to melt together into one transcendent experience, Coltrane is said to have stepped off the stage, put down his saxophone, and said simply “Nunc dimittis.” Coltrane felt he could never play the piece more perfectly, that somehow the music had allowed him to come in contact with God in this world. That was all he ever needed. He was ready.
As we dwell in this season of Christmas for a few days longer we can pray that God would continue to show up for us. That in all we do we would know he is here. That Jesus would be lived in us, and through us, and that we might see him in others also. Perhaps most importantly we pray that somehow we might see him and sense him both as an innocent, humble child in a manger, and also as the Divine upon the cross. For that is what we really need, and it is knowing him as that which will carry us from this life and into his presence in the next.