“God is not afraid of new things.” –Pope Francis
Simeon was told by God that he wouldn’t die before he saw “the Lord’s Christ.” He was probably fairly confident in his idea of what this would look like. Given the way God came to earth in the Hebrew scriptures he probably thought and hoped some fire or thundering voice of justice would be involved–something that would really instill some fear into their Roman oppressors. But perhaps when he was thinking of it realistically, and he’d given it much thought indeed over the years, he thought the Christ would be a strapping young leader with charisma and authority. He would be like his kingly forefather David but with Messianic muscle and a more commanding presence. Lately, every knock at the door he expected would be this promised God-man coming, radiant as the sun, to tell him his top-secret plan to overthrow Rome.
So imagine how confused and senile he might have felt when he is certain God is telling him to go to the temple–right now. So Simeon arrives and is led to where the a baby is being presented just as is done for all sons of law-abiding Jewish parents. Maybe at first he thought, OK, this looks like business as usual in the temple. What’s the big deal? Then he takes a second look and is overwhelmed by the feeling that this different. In one amazing moment he realizes that this baby is the Savior, the promised Messiah. A baby is going to save Israel.
Probably after the initial confusion and shock of this news Simeon took a minute or even an hour to process this. He and God must have been very close. I imagine he stepped aside and prayed something like this: “With all due respect, Yahweh, we are oppressed today and need your help immediately and you sent us a baby. How is a baby, even a God-baby, going to free our people? We have to raise him first? We have to teach God how to walk and talk and eat before he can save us? We don’t have that kind of time, Father. We are suffering now.”
After that I imagine Simeon’s tone might have shifted to one of admiration and wonder and joy. Not because he is so excited that the baby he’d been waiting for is finally here (“the consolation of Israel” doesn’t sound much like a birth announcement), but because of the way Jesus came into human existence. If I were Simeon, as I held that baby I would be looking up and thinking: So creative, God. Well played. This is just like you to slip into the world from a woman’s body the way we all do, bloody and crying, relatively unannounced, as offspring of a human. This is just like you to defy our boxy expectations, to wildly surpass our feeble ideas of who you are. You are the author of life and this is a plot point only you in your infinite wisdom and creativity could dream up.
It is interesting that these old faithful ones are not allowed to hang around on earth long after their encounter with Jesus. Maybe no human could handle the heavy burden of a preview of the Messiah’s life before it happened for very long, especially after seeing him as a sweet infant. Maybe it would would be too much to carry along from day to day. Even Mary didn’t seem to fully understand who Jesus was or what was happening. Speaking as a mother, this was probably for her own protection, a special gift of God’s provision.
So anyway, let’s back up to the beginning of the story. God is getting ready to have a baby. His holy Son, with him triune-ly for all eternity except for this time when they are to be distanced from each other by time and space and matter, will enter the physical universe. He’s going to be daddy and maybe he is just so excited he can’t keep it to himself. Not everyone can know because they will of course try to kill him so he will just tell just a few trustworthy old friends. His secret will be safe with them. This is really smart because if they went away mumbling or in utter shock about a God-baby people would dismiss it as just the old temple-dwellers getting confused and fuzzy brained.
Before writing this post I had a question about this story. Why does Simeon want to see the Christ so badly? He is old and will die soon anyway and will be with God in all God’s fullness after death. But that’s really not the right question. The revelation to Simeon started with the Holy Spirit. Maybe this isn’t about Simeon getting what he wants. Maybe it’s about an expectant relational God wanting to share the news of his baby boy and give a preview of what it means. As in all things, it starts and ends with God. Its possible the Holy Spirit gave Simeon the desire to see the Lord’s Christ and the promise of it so that the joy and sorrow of his son’s life could be shared with a human being.
How much of Jesus’ life did the Holy Spirit let Simeon in on? Was he told that Jesus would apprentice as a carpenter with Joseph or that as a boy he would teach the teachers in the temple? Did he smile to know he would keep the wedding party going by turning water into wine? Simeon, how much did the Holy Spirit reveal to you? His statement to Mary seems pretty well informed. But it may be just as likely that he says the words without full realization of what he was saying. I’m not even sure all these years after Jesus’ life that we really understand all of what Simeon said. His prophetic words seem out of place in this joyful birth story–haunting and mysterious on the page. They must have been even more so to Mary when she heard them. “This child,” he tells her, “is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Oh, Mary, God be with you.