We just finished the season of Advent. On the church calendar, it is now Christmas. How awkward is that? Our whole society is saying “Been there, done that,” and the churches, the liturgical churches at any rate, are saying, “Wait. We’re just getting started.”
So it’s Christmas now. And at our house, it is the Christmas story according to Luke this year and that brings us to the character of Simeon. Bette once said that a mind like mine that makes connections by so many different modalities really shouldn’t be trusted with a blog that just anyone could read. She didn’t actually say that out loud, but I know the look by now. Today, my goal is to prove her right.
The thing that’s hard to get about Simeon is just how bad he wants it. Here’s what Luke says about him.
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
The expression “the consolation of Israel” doesn’t have a single clear meaning, but everyone is sure it means that God will, at long last, take care of his people, Israel. It is something a devout man might feel very intensely about. He might want it more than he wanted anything. He might very understandably want it more than he wanted life, but that wasn’t a trade he was going to get to make.
It is easy for people who haven’t thought about it to imagine that “should not see death [until]…as something like the invulnerability of Achilles. And just as we think Achilles is “safe”—except for that little matter of the heel—so we might think that Simeon is “safe” until God provides the promised consolation; until, in Luke’s phrasing, he had seen “the Lord’s Christ.”
That’s not the way I’m thinking about it. Let me add a batch of entirely fictional, but also entirely plausible, “facts” about Simeon. He’s an old man. Let’s say he has rheumatoid arthritis. He is in pain all the time. He doesn’t sleep well, so he is fuzzy-minded all the time. He doesn’t have any friends and he doesn’t get around the way he once did. And yet, every day he goes to the office, so to speak. He goes to the temple to pray for the one thing that he can set beside his pain and his drowsiness and his loneliness in such a way that they all would be worth enduring. He wants to die, sure. He is eager to die. But he refuses until God makes good on His promise.
God looks down from heaven and pities the old man. He says, “Simeon, this is taking longer than I thought. It’s OK for you to let go. I know you want to die and it is a release you deserve.” And Simeon says, “No. Absolutely not. You promised and I am holding you to it no matter what it costs me. I will be here—I will be right here—until you keep your promise.”
Then one day the Holy Spirit says to Simeon, “Go to the temple. Now!” Simeon, being that kind of person, does what he is told and there he finds Joseph and Mary and their infant child. This is really the only way for the standoff between God and Simeon to be resolved. They put the child into his arms and he realized instantly that the two things he wants more than anything—but wants equally—are now his. He is holding “the consolation of Israel,” in his arms. God has acted, finally, and “the anointed of the Lord” is here. God has kept His word.
Now he can accept the other gift God has for him.
29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…30 for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.
Some translations read, “Lord, now dismiss your servant…” The New Jerusalem Bible has “Now, Master, you are letting your servant go in peace as you promised…” And then, as I imagine it, Simeon dies. He dies, I am sure, with a smile on his lips. He can lay all that down now. He can die in peace. God’s honor has been preserved and Simeon’s waiting has been rewarded.
As I was thinking about Simeon this year, how badly he must have wanted it impressed himself on my mind. If Simeon had had a wife, she would have said to him, as Job’s wife said, “Why are you hanging on like this? Curse God and die.” And like Job, Simeon would have said, “No. I will wait.”
Then, yesterday, I thought of it another way. This is going to take us back to Jacob, later named Israel, wrestling with “the angel.” See Genesis 32 for the whole story. The being Jacob was wrestling—there is some confusion about who it was, exactly—said, “Let me go for day is breaking.” Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Jacob is not a character I have ever admired, but this year, I noticed that he was stubborn in the same way Simeon was stubborn. Simeon had God’s promise, “I will not let you go until I bless you.” In the fantasy I managed above, God tried to talk Simeon out of it but Simeon wasn’t having any. In that fantasy, Simeon said to God what Jacob said: “I will not…go…until you bless me.” Simeon knew the story and he was sticking to it.
As someone who has read the Bible all his life, I can’t tell you that I think these two passages—Genesis 32 and Luke 2—are related in any way. But the transactions they describe suddenly seemed to me to be oddly alike. This way of looking at it makes Simeon a lot more stubborn than he has been in the imagination of any commentator I have read, but it also makes me like him better. He wanted to die more than he wanted any thing—except one. And on behalf of that one thing, he came to the temple, day after day, to remind God of his promise.