The Song of Simeon
Saint Luke 2:22-32
Last Sunday, when the blue of Advent was still upon us in the morning, we heard, in the Holy Gospel, the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise for His goodness and mercy. Today, in the white of the Christmas season, we hear another song—this one from a man whom we believe was beyond the autumn of his life, a man for whom earthly life was metaphorically poised at the end of the year, waiting for the new year to begin. The man’s name was Simeon. Saint Luke describes him as being “righteous and devout.” “The Holy Spirit was upon him,” we’re told, and he was “waiting for the consolation of Israel;” He was waiting for the Christ to come, and, as the Holy Spirit had informed him, “he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”
Well, the day had come for this to happen, when Mary and Joseph brought the forty-day-old infant Christ to the temple in Jerusalem to “present him to the Lord.” This presentation, like His circumcision, thirty-two days earlier, was in keeping with the Law of Moses. Years later, Saint Paul would write: “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” Our Lord’s submission to the Law of Moses is for our righteousness—for our salvation, for in submitting to the Law He is fulfilling it for us all.
Now with the presentation of Jesus at the temple that day, the Law said that all first-born baby boys needed to be bought back, or redeemed from God. This requirement came into place following the tenth and final plague in Egypt, when God spared the lives of all the first-born sons of Israel who were marked as belonging to God by the sacrificial lamb’s blood painted on the doorposts and lintels of their houses. In the days to follow that first Passover, all first-born baby boys would, like Samuel of old, be required to serve the Lord in His temple their whole life long, that is, if the buy-back price were not paid with a sacrifice given at the temple. As I mentioned a couple of years ago, even though Jesus was spared from this temple service to God when Mary and Joseph gave the required turtledove sacrifice, He would go on to be the ultimate Servant, the Priest Supreme, making the ultimate sacrifice for all people, by offering Himself as the sacrifice for our sin on the altar of the cross.
When Simeon beheld “the Lord’s Christ,” he took the infant Jesus “up in His arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.’” This song, or canticle, is identified as one of the three “evangelical canticles,” because, like the other two, it comes from the Gospel according to Saint Luke. The other two are Mary’s Magnificat and the Benedictus of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. All three canticles have a liturgical place in the daily prayer of the Church, with the Benedictus being sung in the morning at Matins, the Magnificat in late afternoon or evening at Vespers, and Simeon’s song, the Nunc Dimittis, being sung at the close of the day. The Nunc Dimittis, as you know, also has a place immediately after the Lord’s Supper in the Divine Service. We will sing it together not too long from now.
It’s easy to understand why Simeon’s song is sung by the Church at the close of the day, for that time of day is symbolic with the end of one’s life in this world. With regard to this, I’m reminded of the children’s bedtime prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep; if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Speaking of death in this way is not intended to evoke nightmares in the little ones about dying in their beds, but to give comfort and confidence in the sure hope of the resurrection. They need not fear the darkness, for Jesus, the Sun of Righteousness, always shines His light upon them. As a song for the office at Compline, or the close of the day, the Nunc Dimittis serves this same purpose. You children of the heavenly Father have seen the Lord’s salvation that He has “prepared in the presence of all peoples.” You rest securely, able to set aside all of the worries of the day, including even the grim shadow and darkness of death, because in Christ, your salvation has come; in Christ, you have the full remission of all sin; in Christ, as Saint Paul tells us today, “you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” You have the full inheritance as sons of God; life and salvation is yours in Christ.
As a song for the Church to sing before going to bed, the Nunc Dimittis is certainly fitting. But what about its place in the liturgy after receiving the true Body and Blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper? What’s the connection here? Well, to start with, dear friends, when you receive the Lord’s Supper, and you look upon the earthly elements of this meal with the sight given to your physical eyes alone, you are no more able to perceive that this is the Lord’s Christ for you any more than Simeon, on his own, could distinguish Mary’s Child from all the other babies being brought to the temple. As with Simeon, it’s by the power and working of the Holy Spirit that you, too, will proclaim to the Lord this morning, when you look upon the consecrated bread and wine, “my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.” It’s only through faith, given you by the Holy Spirit, that you believe the Word of Christ that speaks and says, “This is My Body … this cup is the new testament in My Blood.” As well, it’s only through your God-given faith that you believe that, by eating and drinking your Saviour’s true Body and Blood, you have the forgiveness of all your sins, and life and salvation. And what comfort, what rest, what peace there is in this!
In churches that deny the Real Presence of our Lord’s true Body and Blood, the song of Simeon is seldom used these days, and never in connection with the Lord’s Supper. This, however, wasn’t always the case. For a time, the canticle was sung after Communion in Genevan churches when John Calvin, the spiritual father of the Reformed, after having essentially dumped the historic liturgy, reintroduced the singing of the Nunc Dimittis. He did this not to affirm what we believe about the Sacrament, but rather so that the words of Simeon would point his people to look through the bread and wine, as a window to heaven where they, the faithful, would, not actually, but spiritually feed on Jesus. Calvin saw the words of Simeon as an encouragement to the people to do their part—their work of coming to Jesus.
But, as you will note from today’s Holy Gospel, Simeon did no work to come to Jesus, his Saviour. He waited patiently, as the Holy Spirit enabled him to do. It was Jesus who came to him—Jesus carried to Simeon in his mother’s arms. And, as it was for dear Simeon, so it is for you dear people. Jesus comes to you, carried to you sacramentally, in the arms of the bread and wine of Holy Communion. The Song of Simeon is, therefore, not a word of encouragement for you, to move you to do your part, to inspire you to reach up to heaven, for in the Lord’s Supper Jesus comes down from heaven for you. It’s all His doing, all His work, and not your own. You just receive in gratitude and thanksgiving according to the faith that you have also been given. And what you are given in Christ is everything; it is the fullness of God’s salvation that was thousands of years in the making, a priceless gift and treasure worth more than the world could ever hope to offer. It is the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God for you, to give you the forgiveness of all your sins.
The Song of Simeon is your song, dear friends. In faith, you behold the Lord’s Christ who fulfilled the Law of God for you and paid the price for all your sin. Jesus, the Sun of Righteousness, shines upon you to disperse all sin’s darkness and, as Malachi the prophet said, He comes to you with healing in His wings. You are forgiven; you are redeemed, bought back from sin and death; you have salvation and life without end.
In the blessed name of Jesus, God’s Son, our Saviour. Amen.