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
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.