When the novelist Anthony Burgess wrote a short novel about the life of Jesus, he decided to bring together the Circumcision and the Presentation in the Temple and to make of them a single scene. This is a powerful example of artistic licence, for Burgess was writing about events which, in reality, were separated by thirty-two days. Time is telescoped to make a profound point.
Simeon, who in the novel is blind, becomes aware of the presence of the infant Jesus when he hears him crying because of the pain and shock of the circumcision and he moves towards the sound and encounters the holy family. It’s a wonderful image because it captures perfectly the vulnerability of Jesus and the profound spiritual insight of Simeon, who cannot see the fulfilment of God’s promise in a literal sense, and yet is able to recognise that fulfilment and to say “mine eyes have seen thy salvation”. It also reflects the darker side of Simeon’s words, in Luke’s account he telescopes time, prophesying that Jesus will be opposed and rejected, and speaking of the suffering that the Crucifixion will bring to Mary his mother:
“This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed; and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
For us, also, this year time is telescoped. Today marks the end of the Christmas season, the celebration of the Incarnation. There will hardly be time to draw breath before, on Wednesday week, we enter Lent and our thoughts will turn to the adult Jesus going out into the wilderness and confronting the thoughts and temptations that could have undermined his ministry and spared him the suffering of which Simeon speaks.
Simeon’s words about falling and rising, about the revealing of people’s inner thoughts take us back to our Old Testament reading from Malachi. Malachi mixes his metaphors in a daring way – the Messiah is likened to a refiner’s fire and to fuller’s soap. The refiner’s fire burns away the dross, leaving only the pure metal behind – a powerful metaphor for the judgement of God but also a pointer to the reflection and the discipline to which we are called in Lent. Fuller’s soap, or fuller’s earth is different – it is an additive – it is beaten into cloth to give it extra body and thickness, to make it more windproof. So that’s a hopeful metaphor which speaks of what theologians call justification, the way in God can and will fill the gaps and the shortcomings in us and bring us to perfection.
We are so familiar with the words that Simeon spoke, words that are said and sung in Christian churches around the world every evening, that we are in danger of losing sight of the wonder of them.
“Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,
to be a light to lighten the gentiles,
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
To recognise the fulfilment of God’s promises in a vulnerable, helpless infant, not voiceless but as yet speechless, is a profound and wonderful insight. This baby - Jesus - is God’s promise fulfilled, and Simeon recognises and acknowledges that truth. He understands that the fulfilment of God’s promise is at hand and he trusts in God for the future fulfilment of that promise. The promise is enough for him. He does not need to live on to watch Jesus grow and develop, and to witness his resistance to temptation, his ministry, his death and his resurrection.
Simeon’s faith speaks to our condition as disciples of Jesus Christ, for we too have seen the salvation that comes at Christmas but we have not yet seen its fulfilment. The world in which we live often looks unchanged and unredeemed. That is why we need the kind of faith that Simeon had, the certainty that God’s promise is in process of fulfilment, even though we may not experience that fulfilment in our earthly lives.
We have all of us found our faith challenged by things that have happened to us and to other people, by griefs and sorrows, by brutality and selfishness, by the undeserved suffering of the innocent. There are times when it is profoundly difficult to say “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation”. At such times we may draw strength from Simeon because he was the first to recognise that the fulfilment of God’s promise would involve God taking upon himself the brutalities, the selfishness and the undeserved suffering of the world and thus establishing an absolute and loving solidarity with the victim of torture, with the refugee, with the grief-stricken, with the convicted criminal on the scaffold, with the helpless invalid in the hospital bed. As the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it:
“Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”
And that absolute, loving solidarity confers meaning and value on situations which would otherwise seem bleak, meaningless and utterly negative. Paul Tillich saw that very clearly when he wrote these words about the encounter between the aged Simeon and the infant Jesus:
“Salvation is a child and when it grows up it is crucified. Only the person who can see power under weakness, the whole under the fragment, victory under defeat, glory under suffering, innocence under guilt, sanctity under sin, life under death can say: “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”