Sometimes the Scriptures give us complex parables to untangle, or esoteric passages nearly illegible with the passage of time, and the preacher must perform feats of extreme hermeneutical acrobatics to come to some sort of explanation. Sometimes the Scriptures give us stories that are obvious, and it is the duty of the preacher to soften the hardness of the teaching, if only a little bit. And sometimes in the Scriptures, there is simply an image, so laden with symbolism and historical import that the preacher gets to simply hold the image up, and slowly turn it for all to see. Simeon, that old man of faith, waiting on God’s messiah and holding the infant Jesus is that kind of image: laden and poignant.
There is, all the way through the Hebrew Scriptures a kind of sad and silent waiting for God. God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Sarah, and Leah and Rachel, the God who chose his people, and made a covenant with them, and led them from exile and through the wilderness, and gave the law, that God, despite the years of prophets, judges and kings, that God is silent, and the people of Israel wait for God’s movement, for God’s salvation with a longing and a hunger of the deepest sort.
For it seems as if God has abandoned his people. As if he has left them, finally, to their idolatry and sinfulness. They couldn’t keep focused on God for the time it took Moses to climb the mountain to receive the law. How could they possibly keep God central to their lives, surrounded by other tribes, by distractions and by the cares of life lived now in the land that they had long awaited?
“Turn again to God” the prophets warned the people of Israel, and they did not. Again and again God sent prophets to call them home, and punished Israel with battle and exile, and begged, pleaded and thundered, and still the people of Israel, the chosen people, did not return, did not repent.
And so Jerusalem was overcome and the Temple was destroyed, most of her people were carried into exile, and what was perhaps worse than all of that was the terrible silence which descended, and God no longer spoke to his people. Even when he fought with them and punished them, God was at least speaking to them, but now a silence has come down, and there are no words from God, there are no messengers and no prophets.
And the people of Israel are left waiting, in silence. Waiting is something that they are good at, something that they have learned to do through the long years of their interaction with God. They waited in Egypt and they waited in the wilderness; they waited for a king, and then they waited for a decent king. They waited to come back from Babylon and now they are waiting to see what happens with the Roman Empire.
They are getting good at waiting, or at least resigned to waiting. And what they wait is the savior who is promised again and again through all their interactions with God, the one that can restore Israel again.
All of that is there in the background, as Simeon stands there in the Temple, holding a forty day old child. Simeon is an image of disparate pieces at the very moment of intersection, the place between the longing and waiting of the people of Israel throughout the years, and the advent of God’s savior and messiah, at the moment when prophesy moves from possible to actual and dreams turn into reality. He stands there, right on the cusp of waiting being transformed into joy, and longing coming to satiety, desire to completeness.
So laden is the moment, so poignant the vision of God’s salvation in the frame of a tiny child that Simeon bursts into song. It matters not that death is near, for God’s savior is here, and he has held him in his arms.
It is a glorious image and symbol, an old man and an infant, a man who has lived in hope for God’s action, and a child whose potential will shake the foundations of the world. And Simeon, death near him, breaks out in a song of praise to the God who has been silent for so long, but is now working: “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation which though has prepared for all the world to see, a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of your people Israel.”
And because he stands there, holding the savior of the world, an image and sign of God’s redemption, Simeon is a better answer to the questions about God’s silence and God’s absence, that constantly arise.
For those questions are constant from year to year and age to age. Where is God when his people are in bondage to a foreign empire? Where now is God in Haiti, where in Iraq? Why is God silent when the planet is being ravished, and millions live in abject poverty? Why is God absent when my life seems to be falling apart?
Simeon holding Jesus is far better than a theological or a philosophical answer to the question of God’s absence, in 1st century Palestine, or quake-ravished Haiti. The answer to our questions is cradled in an old man’s arms. The tiny child offers no theological answer, no philosophical defense of God’s absence and silence. All that he offers is himself, a tiny frame, a wisp of hair, and miniature fist.
Simeon doesn’t claim that this is God’s messiah. He does nothing except hold the child, and praise God. Nothing need be said, for God’s absence and God’s silence is not undone by human words, but by the child who is the savior of the world: into the silence of the world a word has been spoken and the Logos has come down to be God with us.
Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft
2 February 2010
The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple: Candlemas
St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia