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Simeon’s Faithful Proclamation

Simeon saw salvation in a very unlikely source.

by Lauren F. Winner

Gospel Reading: Luke 2:22-40

Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012: Year B - First Sunday of Christmas

So much is going on in this passage.

In case there was any doubt about Mary and Joseph’s religious credentials, here Luke presents them as devout and faithful, going to the Temple for the qorban yoledet (the mother’s post-partum sacrifice) and the pidyon ha-ben (the redemption of the son). (That there is no extra-Lukan evidence that these two events were ever actually performed together is another topic for another day; literarily, they establish the piety of Jesus’ family, and get the text back to the Temple.)¹

Faithful Elders

At the Temple, two faithful elders tell the gathered community who Jesus is and what is happening. We don’t hear Anna’s exact words, but Luke does give us the so-called Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimitis (from the Latin), the last of the five prayers that dot the first two chapters of this Gospel.

There have been many amazing instances of faithfulness heretofore in Luke – Mary’s faithfulness; Zechariah’s faithfulness (the first thing the man says after months of muteness is a prayer!); the shepherds’ faithfulness. But to my mind, Simeon’s faithfulness takes the cake. At least the other three had visits from angels to rely on. Without so much as a nod from a passing seraph, Simeon looks at this tiny scrap of baby and sees the salvation of the world. And then he tells us:

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.

Simeon’s Song Expropriated

Simeon’s poem has gotten taken up by Christian liturgies through the ages. Pray-ers guided by the Book of Common Prayer find the hymn near the end of Compline, for example. Composers from William Byrd to Gustav Holst have set it to music.

And over the centuries, faithful Christians have turned to these words, lifting them out of Scripture and liturgy and pronouncing when they think they are seeing something that smacks of salvation. Here’s one very public example: the Republican convention, Chicago, 1860. During the tense third ballot, Ohio switched four votes from Salmon P. Chase to Abraham Lincoln, thereby giving the lawyer from Illinois the nomination. At Ohio’s announcement, one man started crying and another old man started quoting Scripture, at the top of his lungs: “Now Lord, lettest thou thy servant depart in peace for these eyes of mine…”²

Stanley Hauerwas at My Shoulder

I can hear Stanley Hauerwas at my shoulder, telling me there is something wrong with naming Lincoln as a savior, with casting American history in these redemptive terms.

Yes, Stanley. I take the point.

And yet: how very striking that at this climactic political moment, this moment that set the nation on the course to liberate 4 million slaves, our old Republican man reached for those words of an earlier old man—as though the convention attender in Chicago had a premonition of the redemption that Lincoln’s election would eventually help bring about.

In both cases, these men looked at an unlikely source and saw God at work, and announced the salvation they saw for all to hear.

The Hardest Question

I wish I had the eyes and faith that Simeon had, the eyes and faith to recognize God’s redemption in unlikely bodies.

I wish I had the eyes to see God’s redeeming work in the world around me, and the faith to proclaim it.

How can I become a person who can recognize God’s unfolding redemption, and respond with Simeon’s words?

What can I and my community do to cultivate the eyes of Simeon?

¹For the unlikeliness that the qorban yoledet and the pidyon ha-ben would typically have been performed together, see Seth Ward, “The Presentation of Jesus: Jewish Perspectives on Luke 2:22-24,” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume 21, Number 2, Winter 2003, 21-39.

² For the quotation of Simeon’s words at the Republican convention of 1860, see Amherst W. Kellogg, “The Chicago Convention of 1860,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Sep., 1921), 99-104.

Lauren F. Winner is a deacon at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, North Carolina, and an assistant professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School. Her books include Girl Meets God, and, soon, Still: Noted on a Mid-faith Crisis.


  1. Jennifer says:

    It’s hard to have those Simeon eyes when most of us are too busy living our lives to spend so much time on being ‘righteous and devout and looking forward to consolation. Maybe if we spent more time in a worshipful stance, we’d have eyes to see Christ in our lives and we’d have no problem with declaring along with Simeon “Now, O Lord, you are dismissing your servant in peace….” Thanks for you good words, and my deep appreciation goes to this community that provides this fodder each week. I feel less alone

  2. Dave says:

    Simeon was “righteous and devout…guided by the Spirit.”

    It strikes me that there’s a difference…sometimes a very fine line…between “cultivated eyes” and “overly trained eyes.” Whereas the former recognizes (insert noun of your choice here…my personal choice is “mystery”) the later tries too hard to see it.

    In my own life, this lesson is hard. Often, I find myself pushing congregations to intentionally and deliberately live the “spiritual life.” Read the latest books, attend the workshops, *religiously* attend the covenant discipleship group, practice John Wesley’s habits of piety, etc. These actions are surely important, but ring hollow when they are merely driven by duty, obligation, or worse, to follow the herd.

    When all this falls away, epiphany shows up. It’s the wonder, the thrill, the amazement, the….mystery of witnessing something that was completely outside of my control in witnessing. Then suddenly a new thing is born.

    Tasting epiphany, however brief, is indescribable joy. I want so badly to share it, but cannot make it happen. It happens when it wants, where it wants and with whom it wants. I want others to “get it,” sometimes more than I care to admit.

    I don’t have much to offer in response to your question. I do pray for others to get it. I encourage them. I even show up and help them when they ask and/or are open to it. But I confess I do sleep more soundly than I used to as a spiritual leader. I’m a recovering pastor who has given up on formulas, methods, reading lists, conferences, priorities, action statements, discipleship plans, and participating in “call to action” mandates.

    I’m learning a sweet contentment in the brief moments of epiphany in my own life…knowing they are real and praying for their continued unfolding in the world. I will serve quietly, love as best I can, and trust God with the rest.

  3. lauren w says:

    I think Jennifer’s point about our being too busy to see like Simeon is very astute. There are multiple ways of being worshipful and attentive. I don’t know the identity of that man in Chicago, but I expect he was probably not someone who devoted as much time to prayer and church as Simeon did to prayer and Temple — still, something about how that unnamed man went about doing whatever it is he did most of the time–lawyering? Republican party politicking? — he did it from a place of attentiveness, such that he could recognize and proclaim something remarkable when he saw it at that convention. In other words, the opposite of the busy-ness Jennifer names may not be only “more time at church doing church things” but “more attentiveness doing whatever it is God is calling us to do wherever in the world God is calling us to do it.”

  4. Chris Enstad says:

    Lauren, good to see you on here. What a wonderful message and I appreciated your turn to self since that is the point here, isn’t it? The story of Simeon has been appropriated for all sorts of things, I stood behind my future wife in college choir changing the words to make them cheesy and lovey-dovey and for *her*… and yet the Nunc Dimittis has imprinted itself on my brain because of that.

    There is a movement afoot and I know that we have seen this before and yet I want to let it come and let it take over our lives and that is the movement of cultivating a watchfulness in our Christian communities. It never robs the spotlight nor earns us a place in the speaker’s bureau of the contemporary Christian movement but in those moments when everything falls silent and there is the grasping for a Word and some sort of Meaning boy do we appreciate the watchful, faithful eyes of the saints. I will call your Hauerwas and raise you one Brueggeman: I think it’s the preacher’s task to do this work. How do you think that is going?

  5. Lauren says:

    Chris, I have been pondering your note.

    So, I am not actually preaching on this Gospel tomorrow. In my church, we have the perciope just before. But the more I think about Simeon, the more I think — there are some Sundays when it might be appropriate, or at least ok, to just get into the pulpit and do little more than repeat the words of Scripture. Simeon’s words may be one of those passages. Bold, the preacher who might just stand up, repeat Simeon’s song, and sit back down.

    Or repeat the song, and think briefly–briefly!–with the gathered community about how we can live into Simeon’s faith. How we can cultivate his ability to see.

    And now, I return to polishing my sermon on circumcision!


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