There are those who are constantly at church because they are uncomfortable outside her walls. Then there are those who are a fixture because they are so thirsty for the presence of God. Simeon was the latter. He was a righteous and devout man. And he yearned for the coming of his Savior.
The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die before he met the Messiah. You could not visit the temple without seeing Simeon and the prophetess, Anna. They spoke with yearning of the coming of the Messiah. When would he come? What would he be like? How would they know it was him? And they prayed. They earnestly prayed for his coming.
I imagine them praying together from the Amidah, the Jewish prayer book, in unison: “The offspring of your servant David may you speedily cause to flourish, and enhance his pride through Your salvation, for we hope for Your salvation all day long. Blessed are you, Hashem, Who causes the pride of salvation to flourish.”[i]
That prayer surely lingered on their lips and stoked their imaginations. Luke says that Simeon waited “for the consolation of Israel.”[ii] Like so many Jews, his hopes for the Messiah were likely rooted in nationalistic hopes of expelling the Roman forces and having the throne occupied by a Jewish king again.
And yet, somewhere in Simeon’s heart, as he studied and prayed for the coming of the Messiah, his heart began to open beyond just the consolation of Israel.
Prophecies like Isaiah’s must have begun to re-shape Simeon’s Messianic imagination:
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.
And nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your rising.[iii]
He was to be a Messiah for the nations! Yet even the very place that Simeon and Anna waited for his arrival, their nation’s racism was enshrined. Every day they would have walked through the Beautiful Gate –with reliefs sculpted into its grand marble frame – from the outer court of the Gentiles[iv] and the court of women. And each time they would have walked passed a foreboding and ugly sign:
“NO FOREIGNER IS TO GO BEYOND THE BALUSTRADE AND THE PLAZA OF THE TEMPLE ZONE. WHOEVER IS CAUGHT DOING SO WILL HAVE HIMSELF TO BLAME FOR HIS DEATH WHICH WILL FOLLOW.”[v]
A nation made by God to be a light to the Gentiles instead stood as a barrier to them.
Then one day a mother, father, and infant – commoners with a commoner’s offering: two doves for purification[vi] — walked through the Beautiful Gate into the court of women[vii] and the Spirit spoke again to Simeon, “This is the one: Salvation has come.” It was no soldier, no king, just a common baby.
But Simeon’s heart could see what no one else could see:
“Blessed are you most high God, for considering me, your servant,” he sang with tearful joy,
“Lord, you may now let your servant depart in peace,[viii]
According to your word;
For my eyes have seen your salvation
That you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
A light for the revelation to the Gentiles,
And for glory to your people Israel.”
In Simeon’s song we hear the song for a Savior, not just of Israel, but of the nations, of the world! His song is a word of hope for the reconciliation of all peoples: that all nations, all tribes, all races would be gathered and healed and saved by this Messiah.
This was not the warrior king that Israel had anticipated. In this infant was light and salvation for all. That baby was the consolation for the Jews and the consolation for the nations.
Praise God that he has come for us all. Jesus is the light of the world.
I love how the theme of hope and light are unfolded in Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming
[i] The Amidah is a compilation of prayers assembled starting around 70 BC and still prayed today (in an expanded form): http://jewishroots.net/library/prayer/praying_for_our_messiah.html.
[ii] This reflects numerous texts in Isaiah (40:1; 49:13; 51:3; 57:18; 61;2).
[iii] Isaiah 60:1-3; Bock points out that in rabbinic literature, it was common to refer to the Messiah as a light (Bock, Baker’s, 244). Isaiah 49:6 says that the Messiah will be a light for the nations.
[iv] The Gentile Court itself was at this time a place one couldn’t even worship. It was a market filled with animals and money changers for Jews to be able to buy animals for their offerings. Many commentators believe that it was this that raised Jesus’s ire against them later in his life – the fact that they were blocking the worship of Gentiles.
[vi] Otherwise one lamb and one turtledove would have been offered. Some (like Calvin (p. 141)) believe that Mary and Joseph’s offering meant they were extremely poor. Others have argued (like Bock (Baker, p. 236)) that it more likely meant that they were just middle class as Joseph was a tradesman and it appears from other documents that only the rich gave the full offering. Bock also points out that for the purification offering the child didn’t even need to be present – this shows how pious they were. There is a fair amount of ink spilt on why the offering is stated to not just be for Mary, but for also for Joseph and/or Jesus. There are several theories on why this is, with Calvin believing strongly it is for Jesus and speaks of his sacrificial atonement and others asserting it was for Joseph because he was ritually unclean (Liefield, Expositor’s, 849).
[vii] This interaction could have occurred anywhere in the Court of Gentiles or the Court of Women, but could not have been in either of the three interior Courts as Mary was a woman. I placed the interaction at the gate between the two because of the sign that would have stood there reminding of the racism endemic in Israel (I also think an interaction in the Court of Gentiles is less likely given the bustling nature of that Court).
[viii] Bock says that Simeon was like a watcher who could leave his post (Bock, Baker’s, 241).
Photo credit: The Western Wall Heritage Foundation/Haaretz
For more on the Christmas Song series, see:
Part 1: Mary’s Christmas Song
Part 2: Zechariah’s Christmas Song
Part 3: The Angel’s Christmas Song
Part 4: Simeon’s Christmas Song