Next Sunday's readings: Presentation of Christ in the Temple (Candlemas)

by
18 January 2007

by John Pridmore

Malachi 3.1-5; Hebrews 2.14-end; Luke 2.22-40

WE TEND to treat the Nunc Dimittis — Simeon’s song with the infant Jesus in his arms — as a mug of Ovaltine, as a nightcap guaranteeing a good night’s sleep. It’s what we sing at evensong when the day’s work’s done, and at compline when it’s time for bed. The familiar cadences are like gentle lullabies, easing us into dreamless slumber.

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” Simeon is satisfied that all he has longed for is now fulfilled in the child in his arms. He’s an old man. (“My life is light, waiting for the death wind, Like a feather on the back of my hand” A Song for Simeon, T. S. Eliot.) Now he can contentedly take his leave, in the sure knowledge that his saviour has come. As we sing his words, we catch his mood, and our own worries begin to drain away. All’s well, and we can safely rest.

Simeon, we read, was looking forward to “the consolation of Israel”. The commentators tell us that this term was used to describe the messianic age, and that it takes up the cry by which an unnamed prophet announced his message of hope to the exiles in Babylon: “Comfort, comfort, my people” (Isaiah 40.1). Simeon had craved that promised comfort. Now salvation is in sight, not only for his own people but for the Gentiles, too. Now, at last, he can go to God with a serene heart.

But if our impression of Simeon is of a contented figure with an unequivocally comforting message, then we’ve mistaken our man. We have sung his song too often and with too little regard to its setting. The Song of Simeon ceases to sound like soothing mood-music if we return it to its context and take account of what he actually says about the child he is holding. His words to Mary paint a darker picture.

Advertisement

The “consolation” which Israel expected would — so they thought — follow the path mapped by the prophet. Theirs would be the destiny he had promised. Their deliverance would fulfil his vision. They, too, would rise in triumph from bitter servitude. For them, too, the wilderness would rejoice and the desert blossom. They, too, would exult over their oppressors, who would watch this mighty act of God in abject awe.

Simeon foresees an altogether different fate for Israel — not a sunlit highway, but the valley of the shadow of death. The end may yet be glorious, but the path there will be a via dolorosa. The doom of Israel is presaged in this baby, born to be a crucified king. Simeon speaks of light and glory, but also of “the time of cords and scourges and lamentation”.

The “many” in Israel are the totality of Israel. In the Bible “many” often means “all”. Simeon’s words anticipate what the child himself will one day say: “The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10.45). For Mary herself, there is little comfort in Simeon’s words. The sword, thrust into her son’s side, will pierce her heart, too.

Simeon turns out to be a less reassuring figure than we have made him out to be, and the presentation in the Temple an altogether more disturbing event than we had supposed. For a truer account of Simeon’s meeting with the child and his mother, we must go to the Querini Stampalia Gallery in Venice and stand before Giovanni Bellini’s Presentation in the Temple.

Bellini wrestled with the significance of the story of Jesus as few artists have done other than Rembrandt. His study of the presentation is a great masterpiece. Looking at it, we see this scene as for the first time.

An unsmiling Simeon reaches out to take the infant Christ. We are unused to seeing babies swaddled, and, to us, the bands, which bind him so tightly, seem like cerements. He appears to be already prepared for burial — which, in a way, he was. Mary seems abstracted, as if continuing to “ponder in her heart” what had been told her concerning her child.

Two women standing by are lost in their own thoughts. One of them is turning away. Is she unaware of what unfolds beside her? Or is the burden of it too much? Joseph — it must be Joseph — stares intently, almost angrily, at us from out of the picture. He seems to say, “Do not for one moment suppose that you understand what is happening here.”

Simeon sought consolation. But there is pain beyond consoling, as Mary found. Others, too, have found that to be so.

Advertisement

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

A Grief Observed C. S. Lewis

Malachi 3.1-5

Thus says the Lord God: 1See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

5Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.

Hebrews 2.14-18

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Luke 2.22-40

When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord"), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: "a pair of doves or two young pigeons".

Advertisement

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

"Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all people,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel."

The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: "This child 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."

There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.

Forthcoming Events

9 October
The Parish: Has it Had its Day?

Join us for a Moral Maze-style debate at St Mellitus College, London. Tickets £10 (£5 for students/ordinands). Read more and book tickets

The Church Times Podcast

The Church Times Podcast, hosted by Tim Wyatt and Ed Thornton, features a mixture of interviews and news analysis. Listen online

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read seven articles each month for free.