“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy Word;
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence
of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
(Luke 2:29-32; RSV)
Over the past few days, while pondering the upcoming Gospel text for this weekend (Luke 2:22-40), from St. Luke’s nativity narrative, a question came to my mind that I’ve never really thought of before. Here’s the question: “After all the festive celebrations of candlelight services last Sunday on Christmas Eve, services that included the singing of uplifting carols such as Angels We Have Heard On High or Joy To The World … and after all the exchanges of brightly colored presents and fun-spirited time with family and friends … well … what-in-the-world are we doing here in this gospel text, talking about death?!” Huh? After all, St. Luke’s account of Simeon’s troubling song is simply haunted by the specter of death. Right? And so, alongside the other Christmas carols we’ll like be singing this weekend, this one sounds peculiar if not flat-out odd, almost dissonant (to use a musical expression). So, let me ask the question very simply, once more: “What’s all this talk about death doing in the middle of our Christmas celebrations of birth and new life?”
Many of us know all too well, how the loss of a loved one makes this Christmas Season particularly difficult. And most of us are reminded of those we’ve loved and lost simply by singing a stanza from a hymn, the touch of a favorite ornament or an absent stocking on the mantle, the taste of peppermint stick … some fleeting but vivid memories of Christmases past. Well, guess what? Simeon’s no different. He’s an old man now (note the marvelous depiction of Simeon as interpreted by Rembrandt). And Simeon’s been around the block more than a few times. And so we can imagine that he’s tasted love and loss, joy and despair, hopes and fears, just like you and I. And so he sings of death simply because he can’t help himself, because he, like us, lives with death every day. “Thou sure and firm set earth; Hear not my steps, which way they walk; For fear the very stones prate of my whereabouts” (Wm. Shakespeare’s Macbeth; II,i,56).
But, take note here. This is more than merely stark realism. For St. Luke is clear that Simeon is able to speak of death so honestly only in the light of the coming of the promised Messiah; only, that is, by the con-fidence (“with faith”) that in this helpless child, God has come to redeem Israel and save the world (cf. Paul Tillich’s “Love Is Stronger Than Death” in The New Being, p.172-174). “Lord,” Simeon sings, “now you can let your servant go in peace; for your word has been fulfilled.” Simeon perceives, you see, that in the Christ Child, God has kept God’s promises (e.g. Isaiah 7:14; 9:1-7). That in this new-born baby, set for the rising and fall of many, God has acted “once and for all” (Romans 6:10; Hebrews 10:10; I Peter 3:18) to address the question and specter of death with the promise of new life.
Thus, we continue to sing Simeon’s Song, all these many years after the events of St. Luke has recorded for us, simply because it bears witness to God’s great love for us – a love that even death cannot destroy (Romans 8:37-39). For, like Simeon, we also need to hear and see (the proclamation of God’s Word) and touch and feel God’s promise (receiving the Holy Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), the promise that God will be with us and for us forever, the promise announced in the birth of that holy babe in a manger, now held lovingly in Simeon’s arms and ours. I hope to see you at worship this weekend, in hearing God’s Word for you; yes, to set the New Year upon a solid foundation …
A Blessed Christmas to you and Hope-filled New Year.
Dr. John Christopherson