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Friday 2 February 2024 Presentation of Christ in The Temple

Simeon, man of hope

Malachi 3:1-5; Hebrews 2:14-16; Luke 2:22-40

By Rob Esdaile

Parish Priest of Woking and Knaphill in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arundel & Brighton

Context: a weekday congregation of 30-40 people made up mainly of retired people in an ethnically diverse community

Aim: to encourage hearers to rekindle their hope from the witness of Simeon

‘So, what do you make of old man Simeon in today’s Gospel?’ It’s a trick question. We’re not told that he’s old (any more than Mark tells us that the Rich Man who asks, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ is young. But – like Matthew in that latter case – we add in the detail that suits our imaginings). Luke tells us only that Simeon is ‘an upright and devout man’ yet we assume his antiquity. Perhaps it’s guilt by association – because Anna is pretty advanced in age, even by contemporary standards, albeit in remarkably fine fettle: 84 years old and never leaving the Temple but ‘serving God night and day with fasting and prayer’; and pretty eloquent, too, ‘speaking of the child to all who looked forward to the deliverance of Jerusalem.’

Age is to some extent relative. With better nutrition and healthcare, we do last better than our ancestors. Jesus’ mother, surviving till past her son’s thirty-third birthday, might have been regarded as quite the matriarch in her day, just as her cousin Elizabeth ‘conceiving in her old age’, need scarcely have celebrated her fortieth. Age is also in part culturally conditioned. Sixty is supposedly the new forty – and hats off to Angela Ripon, high-kicking her way through ‘Strictly’ last autumn, whereas my mother once told me that in clothing catalogues before World War Two there were sections offering ‘matron styles’, aimed at any woman past child-bearing age.

Of course, there is another reason why we presume that Simeon is a senior citizen, namely his stated readiness for death, expressed in the beautiful prayer Luke gives us, a prayer usually known by its opening words in Latin, ‘Nunc dimittis’: ‘Now, Master, you can let your servant go in peace… because my eyes have seen the salvation which you have prepared for all the nations to see …’ It’s hard to conceive of a youngster – even in a culture where life-expectancy was probably around 40 for men, a decade or more less for women – arriving at that take on life. Actually, nowadays it’s rather hard to conceive of an older person in good health voicing such an opinion. We’re all too busy and the bucket-list is too long for us to think of easily casting off this mortal coil. As a friend used to have displayed on his office door: ‘The Lord put me on this earth to do a certain number of things. I’m so far behind right now that I shall live for ever.’ Yet, across many Christian traditions, Simeon’s prayer is put at the heart of our night prayers. ‘Nunc dimittis’. Way to go! Clearly. Quite literally.

But in our world of ‘triple lock’ pensions, ‘silver surfers’ and ‘senior living’, can any of us in full health really pray with conviction: ‘Master, let your servant go in peace’, if ‘going’ signifies anything more than entering the Land of Nod for a few hours? We’re conditioned to view death as personal defeat, a failure of healthcare or simply bad luck, rather than as the natural completion of a full life.

For me, what makes Simeon so compelling – and challenging – a character is the fact that he is still alert, still on the watch, still brim-full of hope despite his (imagined) seniority. He is still a person of promise, still trusting in divine providence after all those years of waiting, watching, searching. The American Franciscan, Richard Rohr, once commented (when talking to a men’s group): ‘It’s so hard to find a man over 50 who isn’t disappointed.’ In fact, whatever your gender, as the prospects of promotion or improving your ‘personal best’ recede, the laughter-lines multiply and our physique heads south, it can be easy to settle for cynicism about the world around and fatalism about our own prospects.

Simeon gives us an alternative model of life in senior years – a way of being present, standing sentinel, ready to welcome new life and to bless those who bear it. As the years pass, he becomes more fully a witness to the light, not less. Grateful for what has been, content with what is, he has the freedom of heart to look forward, trusting in the promise of the Spirit ‘that he would not see death until he had set eyes on the Christ of the Lord.’

It’s not about having an ‘optimism bias’ or wishful thinking. Life has taught Simeon to anticipate both the cross and its effects on those who love this child: ‘a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ Yet light shines in his heart and is reflected in his face, for the Lord whom he was seeking has suddenly entered his temple, as we celebrate today 40 days after his Nativity. May that same light be seen also in our lives, we who have witnessed the outcome of the life of that child and the truth of Simeon’s prophecy. Here indeed is ‘a light to enlighten the pagans, the glory of God’s people Israel.’

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