Fr. Justin Sheehan, OCSO
Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
That scene in today’s Gospel, when the old man took the infant in his withered arms, is one of the most picturesque and striking stories found only in St Luke. Simeon’s whole life appears, in its later years, to have been under the immediate direction of the Spirit of God. In three consecutive verses, we are told that “the Holy Spirit was upon him”. “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord”. “He came in the Spirit into the temple”. That seems to mean that some sort of interior impulse sent him there, in the expectation that at last he was to “see the Christ of the Lord”.
He was there before the child was brought in by his parents, because the Gospel says “He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus…he took him into his arms”. Think of the old man, waiting there in the sanctuary, told by God that he was about to have the fulfillment of his life-long desire, and yet probably not knowing what shape or form the fulfillment would take. There is no reason to believe that he knew he was to see an infant. And he waits.
Eventually a peasant woman comes in with a child in her arms, and he senses in his soul something like what Samuel sensed when David was presented to him: “There – anoint him, for this is he!” And so, whether he expected such a vision or not, he takes the child into his arms and says, “Now, Master! – now, Lord! – after all these years of waiting – you may let your servant go in peace”.
It seems to me that what we have here is a consecrated religious recognizing and welcoming the approach of death. Simeon recognizes the appointed sign that his days were drawing to an end, and he’s glad to acknowledge the fact. It’s as if he were saying, “Lord, I see now that the time has come when I may put aside all this weary waiting and the infirmities of age, and go to rest”.
Notice how he looks at approaching death. “You may let your servant go” reminds us of the phrase “Let my people go”, which the book of Exodus repeats before the Passover. But the Latin name of Simeon’s canticle, the Nunc Dimittis is closer to the Greek: Now you dismiss, you send away your servant. It is the technical word for relieving a watchman from his post. It has the idea of the hour having come when the servant who has been on the watch throughout a long, weary night, or vigilant throughout a hot, dusty day, may gather up his tools and go home. “Lord, you dismiss me now, and I take the dismissal as the end of a long watch, like Compline at the end of a long day”.
But Simeon’s canticle does not end there. He goes on to say, “You may let your servant go in peace, according to your word”. That is the voice of a consecrated religious calmly accepting the permission. He feels no agitation, no desire to take his own life, only a desire for God. And the reason for that peaceful welcome of the end is “for my eyes have seen your salvation”. That sight is the reason for his being sure that he had been faithful to God’s call, and that his work for God was done. But it is also the reason for the peacefulness of his departure. His weary old eyes had seen all that any religious needs to see to be satisfied and blessed. What more is there to consecrated life, than the sight of God’s salvation?
My brothers and sisters, we too may go in peace, if the eyes of our faith have seen him who satisfies our vision at the Eucharist, whose real presence will go with us as viaticum into the darkness, and whom we shall see more perfectly when we have passed from the guard post to the home above, where we shall no longer be servants, but sons and daughters in the Father’s house.
“You let your servant depart in peace, according to your word”.
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