I talked last week about Simeon, specifically how his words in the liturgy call our attention to the presence of God among us in the sacrament. It’s unfortunate we spend so little time examining the meaning and import of his words, even as we sing them in the service. There is quite a bit wrapped up in his brief song from Luke 2.
Last week I examined how Simeon’s words call our attention to the presence of Christ in the meal. God’s promise to us has been fulfilled. We have seen God’s salvation with our own eyes. Even though we may wait a long time for that fulfillment, thousands of years even, it will be fulfilled. This is one of the major themes in the sacrament and one of the reasons for its use here in the liturgy.
Luke 2 tells us God had promised that Simeon wouldn’t die before seeing the Christ. Interestingly, the text makes no mention of how old Simeon actually was. It is, perhaps, implied by the promise that he wouldn’t die and church tradition typically views him as an older man, but this isn’t something we can verify. A recent article in the Lutheran Witness discusses how Simeon could now die in peace knowing that salvation had come to the world. I have no doubt that was at least part of what was swirling around in his mind as he beheld his Savior face-to-face, but I argue that his words, when put together with the sacraments, the liturgy, and the season of Advent, take on a very different tone.
To set the stage, we must recall who this child is who has come to rest in Simeon’s arms. The Anointed One? Yes, that was the promise. The Savior of the world? Yes, that too. The Son of God? Yes, also this. If Jesus is the Son of God, and He is, then this meeting enters into an entirely different arena. For reference, we draw on the passage that often begins our trek through the season of Advent, the one we also hear on Palm Sunday. The King is coming, righteous and having salvation is He. As the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus has no need to become the King of all creation. He always was and continues to be. Even in His infancy, His divine nature shines forth at times, as evidences as the glory of the Lord surrounded the angels who announced the birth of Jesus, the glory of the Lord that was emblematic of God’s special and gracious presence among His people. The glory of the Lord left Israel in the days of Ezekiel and now was back. Jesus may be an infant human, but He is still eternal God.
That means Simeon is in the presence of not just a baby, but a king, or rather, The King. We see Jesus presiding as King at the Last Supper. He is the the King who serves, rather than the one who is served, but nevertheless He is King. He gives a command to His disciples, to the church, to continue celebrating this meal, for it is His on-going presence with His people. He gives commands to the disciples when He first encounters them. “Follow me,” He says, and they do. Not because He compels them like robots, but because creation naturally orders itself around its Creator. Peter, James, John, and the rest follow Jesus because that’s what we were created to do.
Luke does not tell us any words came from the mount of the infant Jesus, nor would we expect any. But, make no mistake, He is still King and being in His presence carries many ramifications. Being in God’s presence is not something anyone does lightly. Isaiah relates his own experience in God’s presence in Isaiah 6. Again, no words were conveyed at the outset. Not until the coal is taken from the altar is Isaiah told his sin is taken away. Prior to that, Isaiah understood what would happen to a sinner in the presence of the God who reigns on His throne in the midst of His temple. Now we find God again in His temple as Mary and Joseph take their Son to Jerusalem. We find Simeon, a sinner, in God’s presence. The only difference between Isaiah and Simeon is that Simeon meets God incarnate, His divinity and glory hidden under human flesh. For both Isaiah and Simeon, God withholds His righteous judgment and has mercy instead.
This changes the character of Simeon’s words. The verb Simeon uses, ἀπολύω, can be translated as simply, “release,” or “let go.” However, viewed in the context of Christ’s divinity and the activity we find in God’s presence, the other means of the word come to the fore. The word can also be translated as “send” or “dismiss.” Given that the Latin title for the Song of Simeon is the Nunc Dimittis or “Now You Dismiss,” the Church has had this notion for some time. The infant King is dismissing His subject. Dismissed for what? Why does Jesus dismiss him? Because, as Isaiah discovers, once you have been in God’s presence there is work to do. Isaiah is to take the words God gives him, along with everything he has seen and heard in God’s presence, to the people of Israel. Now Simeon is called on to do the same. He has seen the Christ, the Savior. Israel and the world needs to know the Son of God is here on earth. The time has come.
The Service of the Sacrament is where apostles are made. The whole focus of the Service of the Sacrament is about coming into God’s presence and it is there we are given everything we need to share with the world. We can point the way to Christ because we know right where He is, in the bread and wine of the sacrament. Isaiah, Simeon, and now the church are earth, are all given apostolic duties because are all brought into God’s presence where we see God’s salvation first hand. Having seen it, we are dismissed to our duties. The world needs to know what we have seen and heard. It is only here salvation can be found because it is only here one can see the Christ.