Simeon Encounters Jesus by Selina Palm

Simeon Encounters Jesus by Selina Palm

An old frail man at the very end of his life cradles a baby boy. Jesus is only eight days into his life. Simeon – old, wise and devout – may be days away from the end of his. The beginning and the end of human life meet, embrace and gaze at each other.

Simeon rarely makes it into our conventional Christmas stories. And yet we find him there in Luke’s gospel as the baby Jesus is taken to the temple to be named, blessed and dedicated to God as the firstborn son. Like the shepherds and the wise men, Simeon plays only a brief cameo role. He enters as an old Jewish man who has waited and watched his whole life for a glimpse of the hope of Israel – the one who will be the Messiah. He is the only one of Jesus’s early visitors who we are told actually held Jesus in his arms. He makes me wonder how it feels finally to receive something that you have waited a lifetime to see and which you have hoped for your whole life.

I imagine Simeon as a very old man, hanging on to life by his fingertips, not quite ready to leave – waiting and hoping for this one last promised moment. Alongside Mary’s dramatic Magnificat, Simeon’s quieter, more contemplative response has become famous in the church as the Nunc Dimittis:

‘Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared before the face of all people. To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of your people Israel’.

Simeon’s hope for the Messiah seems to give his life meaning right up until its end. He had the privilege of seeing with his own eyes the realisation of his lifetime Messianic hope and of recognising it. Not many people get to see their hopes turn into reality in front of their eyes.

As I reflect on Simeon, I wonder what things I hope to see with my own eyes in my lifetime. What are the hopes that may sustain me and give my life meaning? Living in South Africa I cannot help but think of those many people who died in the struggle against apartheid and never lived to see its end. I think of the present struggle into which my own work takes me – that of the HIV pandemic – and wonder if in my lifetime a cure will be found. I wonder what future hopes may help to give my own life meaning and direction over its course.

The South African theologian Ernest Conradie says ‘in the 21st century, a clear vision of hope is required to face a daunting social agenda of increasing poverty, ethnic and religious conflict, environmental degradation and AIDS’. As Christmas approaches and we remember again the entrance of God incarnated into our troubled world through a little baby boy, let us take the time to reclaim a sense of worldly hope, of the possibilities for renewal and transformation in our world today.

New life often helps us to imagine new possibilities. For Simeon the Jew, maybe that new possibility was his recognition as he held the little boy that Jesus would become not only the hope for Israel that he had been looking for but also a light for all human beings. Maybe we too, like Simeon, need to imagine new possibilities for our world and for our future and to be inspired to step out towards them in active hope.