“When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord….” (Luke 2.22). So Luke begins the story which Anglicans tend to call ‘The presentation of Christ in the Temple’; Roman Catholics ‘The Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary’; and Orthodox ‘Hypostante’: i.e. the meeting of the five (Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Anna and Jesus).
We know from Leviticus 12 that this event would have happened 40 days after the birth of Jesus – and as a result in the more liturgical churches it is celebrated on February 2nd every year, although the Lectionary allows for a celebration on a Sunday, which this year falls on January 31st.
A glance at the lectionary reveals that there is another name for this event – Candlemas. A medieval nickname, it alludes to the custom of a procession with lighted candles before celebrating the Eucharist that day, the candles being a reminder of the words of Simeon’s song of prayer which included the words: “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2.31-32). In a way which Simeon could not have fully dreamt, Jesus is the light of the world, who dispels not only Israel’s darkness, but also the world’s darkness.
I am fascinated by the figure of Simeon, who the Greek and Russian Orthodox call “the God-receiver” (Theodochos). ‘Simeon’ was a common name in Israel, and was derived from the second of Jacob’s sons (Gen 29.33). In this context the name Simeon fittingly means ‘God has heard’. Later apocryphal accounts suggest that Simeon was a priest and a great teacher; there has been a suggestion that Simeon was the son of Hillel and father of Gamaliel, and was also president of the Sanhedrin in AD 13, but this is conjecture. All Luke tells us not only that he was “righteous and devout” (2.25), but that he was also Spirit-led (2.25, 26, 27). Most commentators assume that he was an old man. Indeed, according to a tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church, Simeon had been one of the seventy-two translators of the Septuagint, who as he hesitated over the translation of Isaiah 7:14 (LXX: “Behold, a virgin – parthenos– shall conceive…”) and was going to correct it to ‘woman’ an angel appeared to him and told him that he would not die until he had seen the Christ born of a virgin (Parthenos). This would have made him well over two hundred years old at the time of the meeting described in Luke, and therefore miraculously long-lived – Luke would certainly have mentioned his age if that had been the case! Luke says the Spirit had revealed to Simeon “that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (2.26), but this does not necessary mean that he was an old man when he ‘received’ (dechomai) into his arms.
The question arises what did Simeon have in mind when in the traditional words of the Book of Common Prayer he said: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”? What appears to be a prayer is in fact a statement: literally, ‘you are letting your servant depart in peace’. The present tense may emphasise that Simeon senses his impending death and is ready for it. In today’s terms we might say that his ‘bucket list’ was complete. We could say that he was not just at peace with God, but he was at peace with himself. He had come to the point where he no longer needed to strive any more: he was now able to die well. He was ready to ‘depart’ – just as the Apostle Paul had been ready too (see 2 Tim 4.6 where Paul employs a similar metaphor).
Or is Simeon here providing not so much a model for dying as for living? Was Simeon simply affirming that when the time came for him to die God was allowing him to depart in peace because he had seen in Christ the fulfilment of his hopes? “So”, for instance concludes Martin Parsons, “when we sing the Nunc Dimittis we are not asking to die, but proclaiming our readiness for the call when it comes”. We like Simeon have ‘received’ the Lord Jesus (the same Greek word used in Luke 2.28 is found in John 1.12), and that makes all the difference in the world. My mind goes to some words of Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement, who once said: “We will do all we can not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die”. As Christians we are able to face up to our mortality because of the coming of Jesus into this world – but in the meantime we have a life to live with him and for him. Jesus provides “light” for living as also for dying.