DO GATES have heads? According to Psalm 24, they do. The fact is reiterated in a refrain. It is common enough for the term “head” to apply to the chief, or the topmost, part of something; less common is the personification of gates and doors. Those entrances into the city stand symbolically for all its inhabitants, eager to welcome “the King of glory” (a description of the Lord found only here in scripture, yet important enough to be repeated four times in two verses). The fact that the doors are ancient is significant: the city has awaited this arrival for a long time. “Lifting up your head” is a Hebrew way of expressing hope and expectation (also found in Luke 21.28).
“Doors need walls,” I once heard a sermon begin (it was preached by an engineer). A door cannot do what doors do unless it is first part of a structure that defines a space, thus creating an inside and an outside. The doors and gates of a walled city are its weakest point when it is attacked from without. They are also its strongest point when we think about its dynamics within: a meeting point; a mixing point; the concrete expression of a belonging in a place that is not a prison (no way out), but a refuge (doors open to let us in).
Our “going out and coming in” is a biblical expression, familiar from the last verse of Psalm 121. That psalm is popular at Christian funerals, when verse eight becomes a prayer on the threshold between mortal life and eternal life. A threshold is exactly what Simeon faces on this day, when Mary comes to be “purified”. Through the Holy Spirit he has learned that — as the Gospel phrases it — he will “not see death before he [had] seen the Lord’s Messiah”.
In art, Simeon is often pictured as elderly, perhaps to contrast with the very young child; or because of the parallel proclamation that comes from Anna. I could not find this in the text, though some of my commentaries on the Gospel did assume that Simeon was old. It took Wikipedia to enlighten me about a splendid Eastern legend that the revelation had come as Simeon was translating Isaiah 7.14 from Hebrew into Greek; so he was at least 200 years old!
Simeon had been waiting for “the consolation of Israel”. Anna spread the good news among those who were “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”. For the prophetess, the arrival of Jesus was a reason to look to the future. For Simeon the righteous, meeting his Messiah was an ending. The poignancy of his situation has never been expressed better than in T. S. Eliot’s “A Song for Simeon”. Anna and Simeon together encapsulate the lifelong experience of encountering Christ which is common to all of us who follow him. Anna reveals the redemption, Simeon the consolation, which Christ makes available to us, too.
Christians have sometimes taught that death is neither something that they should fear happening to themselves, nor something that should cause them grief when it happens to others. The writer of Hebrews has this in mind when he explains Christ as destroying the power of death, and liberating us from the fear of death. This might be seen as placing a heavy yoke on the shoulders of the faithful (despite Matthew 11.30). Not many of us (not even great saints such as Augustine) have faith strong enough to insulate us from sorrow at the death of loved ones. It may help to remember the kindly wisdom of Jeremy Taylor: “It is not a sin to be afraid.”
The song of Simeon — known by its Latin incipit, Nunc dimittis (“Now you send away”) — belongs to all our eventides. We sing it at the ending of the day. We sing it at the end of human journeys. Its use in Christian funerals has always been, for me, the acme of that mysterious mingled expectation and consolation that is the consigning of a human person to the deep waters of death, and all that lies beyond.
As I was writing this, news happened to come to me of someone’s death. It was expected, and peaceful. So it was as natural as breathing for me to put down the phone and pray, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.”