This is a feast that grandparents – or any older person, really — have to love because they are front and center in proclaiming the good news on this day. Yet another set of unlikely prophets puts in an appearance – first the shepherds, then those strangers from the East, and now two old people. This text should have a neon sign blinking on and off : GOD OF SURPRISES AT WORK HERE. AT WORK HERE.
When the new parents bring their baby to the Temple to do for him as the Law requires, who meets them there, having been led into the Temple by the Spirit ? None other than Simeon, “righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel,” — in other words, somebody’s who probably retired. But we see at once that his mind and heart haven’t retired at all. Simeon has been awaiting the consolation of Israel with wise, focused eyes and a heart that’s been schooled over a long time by prayer and desire. So right away, he knows. When he takes the Child in his arms, he knows : this is the One. His first words are full of gratitude and exaltation :
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples :
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”
Even as he recognizes that his long life may now come to an end because what God has promised has come to pass, he gives voice to a prayer of joy. In the face of having seen this “light for revelation” and this “glory for [your] people Israel,” Simeon is completely ready to welcome his own departure.
But then he finds himself saying things that may surprise him as much as they surprise Mary and Joseph :
“Behold, this child is destined
for the fall and rise of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be contradicted
—and you yourself a sword will pierce—
so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Coming so soon after the initial outburst of praise and thanksgiving, this second half, with its direct address to Mary, changes the mood, darkens the picture. It could remind us of so many paintings and icons of the Virgin and Child – tender, loving, beautiful and yet, the mother’s eyes are sad or at least thoughtful. Mary has already had moments like that – starting with the moments after the angel left her at the Annunciation. Here is another of those moments, and just as she has done before and will do again, she keeps and ponders it in her heart.
But Luke’s not finished with this story – and it ends on a high note, when Anna the prophetess arrives and adds her own prayers of jubilation and praise to the scene. Anna reminds me of so many of the old ladies that we’ve all seen in church, dressed in their dark winter coats and their galoshes. Their rosaries clack and clink against the pews as they kneel and thumb through weather-beaten prayer books. Those little plastic rain bonnets drip gently when they come in from the rain to the 6:30 a.m. Mass. If they catch you after Mass, you know you’re going to get way too much information about the state of their bunions or knees.
It’s easy enough to smile a bit condescendingly when you hear or see the ladies coming, even as you eye your best escape route. Still, the fact remains : they’re there. Just like Anna. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to imagine, as you hear their beads and their not-so-quiet silent prayers, that their eyes and hearts have been schooled by the same kind of long years of waiting, watching and hoping that Anna and Simeon knew.
Like that of Anna and Simeon, their persistent presence challenges me to ask myself : “How about you ?” How much waiting, watching and hoping do you do ? Are your eyes and heart schooled by a tremendous longing to see Him ? When you pray the “Nunc Dimittis” (The Canticle of Simeon) every night at Compline, do you really mean it ?”
Recently I had the honor of accompanying an older friend as she moved toward her death. During her last months, despite very real pain and suffering, she would often say : “I’ve had a great life ; I’ve been very blessed. I’m ready to leave now and meet Him.” Although I didn’t want to say “goodbye,” she was so sure of the One she would meet that I had to come ‘round to her way of thinking. She got her wish in early January. I miss her very much, but I’m sure that she’s with Him now, and that there’s a mutual love feast going on there. (I’m also sure that she’s now in receipt of a lot of information that she planned to ask about “once I get there.”)
Her witness and the witness of Simeon and Anna lead me to pray : “May I – and may you, dear readers – grow old and wise like Anna, Simeon, and my dear friend. Let me start today to urgently desire the grace I’ll need to live and die in faith like theirs. And may there come a night when I will be able to say with total confidence : ‘Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace.’ Amen.”
Nuala Cotter, r.a.
Worcester, United States