Seeing What Simeon Saw

I’ve been trying to enter the amazing Christmas story from the inside out. I think the story is robbed of all its power when we try to move the other way, from outside in. Perhaps what I am trying to do is see the baby Jesus the way Simeon saw him:

There was at that time in Jerusalem a man called Simeon. This man was upright and devout, one who watched and waited for the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the law required, he took him in his arms, praised God, and said:

‘Now, Lord, you are releasing your servant in peace,
according to your promise.
For I have seen with my own eyes
the deliverance you have made ready in full view of all nations:
a light that will bring revelation to the Gentiles
and glory to your people Israel.’

Simeon shares with all devout Jews the expectation of a coming deliverer. In fact people had been telling this story over and over for millennia: One day God would come to set things right! They had lived under brutal oppression from a succession of surrounding rulers: Egypt, Babylon, now Rome. Someday God would be king over all the world. They would be free at last. That’s the backdrop for the Christmas story.

And now, here is this baby—wow, has a new king actually arrived? For whatever all the reasons, they felt something earthshaking going on in this very baby. Could this be the time? When Simeon finally held the baby in his arms, he knew, he just knew. It all made sense now. A new light of peace would shine, not just for Israel, but for all the world to see.

In the seventeenth century, the great Rembrandt was somehow moved by the Simeon story. He painted the story at least twice, once early on when he was twenty-five years old, the other, a much better painting, in 1669, the year he died. It is as if Rembrandt too had been waiting to see the light of the baby now held in Simeon’s arms. The face of Simeon glows in this great painting. Simeon is full of astonishment. And the baby is calm, radiant. Simeon’s hands do not so much cradle the baby as they seem to be gesturing: “See, our deliverer has now come. Here he is! What more can we do but lift up our hands and voices in praise and gratitude?”

When we read these stories from the outside in we come to them with the typical skepticism of our day. A baby in a virgin’s belly, celestial choirs, visions and dreams, light glowing from a newborn’s face? Thomas Hardy thought even the oxen bowed down in worship. Really? We’ve got to admit, these stories are also full of hardship and fear. There is a real Roman regime marching about, ready to pounce with sometimes brutal force. There is Augustus who considered himself the son of god.

Well, yes, a real world permeates these stories. And yet they are so full of mystery. There is wonderment, awe, joy, hope. There is light shining all over the place. Our problem is we don’t do mystery very well in our time. We want to read these stories from the outside in, to snuff out the mystery of it all. Listen, we too live in a tough, confused, difficult world with lots of problems. We want to read these stories in light of injustice, poverty in our own streets, political turmoil, violence at home and abroad. We want to read these stories with the tools of philosophical skepticism. What difference could this story—so full of mystery!—make for our time? Too much mystery feels like a copout.

Maybe Rembrandt’s baby, so radiant and calm, or Simeon so utterly captured by what he now holds—maybe there is something here that transcends our skepticism. Maybe the only thing we can do, or perhaps the first thing we do, is what the shepherds did in the field that night: “Come, let us go straight to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.” We act. We move. We’ve got to see. We hear that “the child’s father and mother were full of wonder at what was being said about him.” We hear that “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered over them.” Maybe that’s the place to start.

This is reading the story from the inside out. It starts with wonder. It is totally unafraid of mystery. It revels in new light. It trusts, not without courage, that God is completing his story in this baby. Most everyone in these stories starts over from a new beginning point. A new light has come. Things have changed, but not only for Israel two thousand years ago. If we read these stories from the inside out, perhaps a new beginning comes for our lives too. Even now.