What do we expect from life? Perhaps we ask ourselves this question especially in those moments when life doesn’t give us what we expect, and, as a result, we find ourselves in a crisis.
The author and psychologist Eugen Drewermann gives an account of two patients who came to him in crisis. They complained about sleeping problems. The first one, a young man, had this to say to him:
You know, I haven’t been able to sleep well for years. I wake up in the middle of the night, covered in sweat. I must have been dreaming the night before, but I can never remember anything. Also, during the day, I can never really seem to relax. I always have the feeling that my life is slipping away from me, as if something important is happening, but I just don’t have what it takes to reach it, no matter how hard I try. It’s as though I were running after a train that is moving faster and faster away from me. I can’t go on living like this.
The second one, a woman, told him that all she wants to do is sleep. She said:
What I would really like to do is just go to sleep. I often feel so tired that I just want to close my eyes and hope to wake up in another world. What do I have to hope for in this world? Everything is so dark and gray and hopeless. If there is anything better, then it has to be in heaven.
The sleeping problems about which these two people complain illustrate how we relate to our expectations. Our lives vacillate between two poles. They swing back and forth between the restlessness of unfulfilled expectations on the one side, and the hopelessness of an almost final resignation on the other. At times, we throw ourselves into the world to show our strength and determination. During those times, we’re confident that life will bring us what we are expecting from it. At other times, we retreat into the shadows, cynical and disillusioned. During those times, we’re doubtful that life will yield to us anything we expect. In the first case, we work ourselves up for too much; in the second, we resign ourselves to too little.
Our gospel lesson introduces us to a man who has succeeded somehow in maintaining himself between the two poles. His name is Simeon. He is a good and faithful man, who has waited patiently his entire life for the consolation of Israel. Today that wait comes to an end. There is a baby boy, whose parents, named Joseph and Mary, bring to the temple in Jerusalem according to the law of Moses. That law stipulates that a woman is to make purification for herself forty days after the birth of her son. Since the baby she holds in her arms is her firstborn son, she must present him to the Lord. To fulfill the law’s requirement here, the parents are to offer a sacrifice. Joseph and Mary offer a pair of turtledoves or young pigeons. Parenthetically, this fact allows us to see that Jesus belonged not only to the Jewish people, but to a poor family within that people. We know that because, according to the law, the two turtledoves or young pigeons are an acceptable offering only if the woman cannot afford a lamb.
Guided by the Spirit, Simeon comes to the temple and observes the young couple and their baby son. Mysteriously drawn to them, he approaches and asks the young woman if he can hold the baby in his arms. Clearly he experiences something wonderful in this moment of grace in the temple–this moment when he cradles the Messiah in his arms and presses him gently to his heart.
To be sure, this is a remarkable moment. But Drewermann (from whose profound meditation on the figure of Simeon I have borrowed extensively both in the preceding and in what follows) invites us to see that Simeon’s entire life preceding this moment is even more remarkable. “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (Lk. 2:26). What kind of man is this who expects that he will not die until his eyes see the Lord’s Messiah? Certainly, he knew no more than any other man or woman how his life would turn out. No doubt, his disappointments were no less than those of anyone else. Certainly, he must have had his own failures and setbacks. Indeed, he must have had as many reasons for resignation and despair as anyone else. But Simeon still held on to his hope for this life, which is now slipping away from him so quickly that it’s nearly at an end. With the Psalmist he remained confident that he would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (Ps. 27:13).
How can we become capable of holding on to our hope in spite of all appearances, in spite of everything we see around us? How do we learn to wait confidently for the light in the middle of darkness, especially when the darkness lasts longer than we ever expected? On Christmas eve, we heard that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; that on those who lived in a land of deep darkness light has shined (Isa. 9:2). But disappointments wound our spirits. Repeated failures undermine our motivation. Deferred hopes make our hearts sick. Luke is absolutely right that this ability to hold on to hope does not come from ourselves. Simeon is not only upright and devout, but also one on whom the Holy Spirit rests (Lk. 2:25). Or, perhaps it is just as accurate to say that Simeon is upright and devout, because the Holy Spirit rests on him. Either way, it is the Holy Spirit who sustains him in his hope. The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit is the power of hope who gives us the power to hope. For example, the benediction the Apostle Paul says over the faithful in Rome assures us that the God of hope will fill us with all joy and peace as we trust in him, so that we may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 15:13).
But to those around him, Simeon must have appeared as a dreamer. They probably thought he was deluded. He’s old enough to know better, old enough to let go of his childish dreams of a “light for revelation to the gentiles and for glory to God’s people Israel” (Lk. 2:32), old enough to see reality as it really is.
That is how we too must appear in the eyes of the world. For we too see in the infant that Simeon embraces the salvation that God has prepared in the presence of all the peoples (Lk 2:30-1). Yet even though this is prepared in the presence of all the peoples, it is clear that not all see and acknowledge it. How do we explain this sight, this acknowledgment? That is, how is it that some see while others don’t? It is no mere human possibility. Apart from the Holy Spirit, no one can see and acknowledge it. To those without the Spirit, it can only be foolishness, for it can only be discerned with the help of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:14). No one can say “Jesus is Lord” apart from the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 8:1). That is why we should always pray to God to send the Holy Spirit among us, so that the people around us who do not believe may come to share our faith.
In order to see what he sees in this child, the old man Simeon must have become like a child himself. Nor should we see this as a deficit in the normal maturation process. On the contrary, we have to become like little children, regardless of how old we are. “Unless, you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus tells his disciples (Matt. 18:3). Consider a little child. She is trusting, totally open to new experience. She is full of hopes and dreams. We see this whenever we ask a child what he wants to be when he grows up. When you ask a child this question, you can expect him to say that he wants to be “president,” or an “astronaut” or a “baseball player.” By the power of the Holy Spirit, God restored and preserved this childlikeness in the heart of Simeon. Only then could he entertain his hopes and dreams of seeing the Messiah, even until the very end of his life. God has to do and will continue to do this work in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, so that our lives may always be enlivened and renewed and guided by the vision of the Christ, the Savior of the world, even until their natural end.
In the days of the prophets of Israel, Joel foretold that in the last days God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh. The old people would be given the power to dream dreams. On both his male and female servants God would pour out his Spirit (Joel 2:28-29). Perhaps this helps explain why Simeon is not alone in his witness. Our gospel lesson also introduces us to an old woman named Anna. The witness of the man to God’s great acts of salvation is partial and incomplete. It can only be made whole by the joint witness of the woman. There can be no Simeon with an Anna, just as there can be no Mary without a Joseph. Luke is intentional when he features them all in our gospel lesson. In doing so, he reminds us that not only in God’s plan of creation, but also in God’s plan of redemption, man and woman are integral to each other. “In the Lord, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman” as the Apostle Paul reminds us (1 Cor. 11:11).
And so Anna too has been waiting. Having been married to her husband only seven years, she lived as a widow until 84 years of age. Indeed, her life is a microcosm of the history of Israel. After a brief period of intimacy with her God in the desert, Israel became estranged from him, and lived subsequently as though she was widowed. But when Anna sees the child, she begins to praise God and tell everyone who was waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem about him. The wait is over. God has not forsaken Israel. God has not forsaken Anna. And God has not forsaken us.
What happens to an old person who is granted the vision of the Lord’s Messiah, Jesus the Christ? Looking back, such a person sees that his or her whole life falls into place, that it has a center, around which all the many and various parts cohere and hold together. It appears like a road coming to an end, like a path along which God has accompanied the person, silently, often unseen and unfelt, but always present, always faithful. Such a person feels within a growing gratitude, and can look back on life as if from the vantage point of heaven. Such a person can say with Simeon, “Sovereign Lord, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation” (Lk. 2:29-30). Simeon’s words here suggest to us that such a person not only looks back, but also looks forward. He or she can see, even as if in a glass darkly, beyond the wall of death. For the image of the Christ child in the arms of an old man, an old woman, is the promise of eternal life.
The promise that God has set before us as a goal begins in this life. For we too have been privileged during this Christmas season to behold the Christ child, the gift that God has given to us, as well as to the whole world. God will never send us on our way without this image of fulfilled hope. With it we can live in peace the rest of our days in this afflicted and threatened world. Amen.