Simeon's Farewell Song
James T. Dennison, Jr.
The music of Christmas did not originate with Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Friedrich Handel. The music of Christmas originated with God himself. That is a pleasant thought, is it not? God himself the originator of musicyes, even the sweet Christmas music which hymns the advent of his beloved Son. The music of Christmas first came from heaven. Vivaldi, Bach, Handel: they are but faint imitators, straining to tune their choruses to the tones of the celestial spheres. Heaven's Son came down at Christmas and heaven's deep organ wove a symphony of hymns to sound forth his birth.
Luke's gospel contains these hymnsthese advent hymnsthese hymns proclaiming the coming incarnation of the Son of the most High: "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God." Luke's infancy narratives contain these hymnsthese advent hymnsthese hymns proclaiming the advent of God's uncreated birth. There are four advent hymns in Luke 1 and 2. Four hymns sung by the inspiration of heaven's Holy Spirit. First, the Magnificat (1:46-55), the virgin Mary's song in which she magnifies the Lord for the miraculous conception wrought in her and the wondrous child carried by her: "my soul doth magnify the Lord." Second, the Benedictus (1:68-79), the song of Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, whose loosened tongue is employed prophetically: "salvation for us . . . salvation from our enemies . . . salvation by the forgiveness of sins"benedictus, "blessed be the Lord God of Israel." Third, the Gloria (2:14), the choir of angels serenading the frightened shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem; a hymn from heaven's own angelic symphonyGloria in excelsis, "glory to God in the highest." And finally, the Nunc Dimittis (2:29-32), Simeon's song; a hymn inspired by heaven's great Spirita song of departurea song of departure and arrival with heaven's visitation cradled in his longing arms. Nunc dimittis, "now your servant may depart in peace O Lord."
Our hymn singing at Christmas time is our faint imitation of heaven's very own advent choruses. So sing, sing with choirs of angels, sing with yearning, longing hearts, sing with wonder and amazement, sing with the blessed fathers and mothers of old, sing at heaven's very own invitation, sing the birth of God's Sonthis giftthis grace-gift who brings you salvation. And when you hear Vivaldi's glorious Gloria; when you are trumpeted into Bach's magnificent Magnificat; when you are drawn to your feet by Handel's Hallelujah chorus, know that your ears, your hearts, your tongues are repeating the sounding joy that heaven itself inauguratedGod himself commissionedwhen he conducted heaven and earth in songs of praise for the birth of his infant Son. We will not shrink back from voicing the carols of Christmas! God's Holy Spirit himself sang before us; we but follow the glorious, the magnificent, the blessed paradigm of our Comforter, our Paraclete, our Helper.
The profusion of song and hymn in Luke's infancy gospel is not incidental. If there is an abundance of singing in Luke 1 and 2, surely something remarkable is afoot. I believe that the four songs of Luke's opening chapters are a poetic marker of a megashifta paradigm shifta turning point of history. Angel's sangindeed sang creation's birthand angels sing again. Surely something remarkable is afoot. A new creation? When Israel stood dry shod across the Reed Sea, Moses sang and all Israel sang with him, "In Thy lovingkindness Lord Thou hast led the people whom Thou hast redeemed." The act of redeeming grace of the Old Testamentthe Exodus from Egyptand Israel sings. Luke's infancy hymns are songs of redemption. Surely something remarkable is afoot. A new Exodus? And what of the prophets? Did they not sing? Take the prophet Hosea for instance. He prophesies a wedding song for the beloved of the Lord. "Behold," says the Lord, "I will allure her, bring her into the wilderness and I will speak to her heart; and she will singshe will sing there as in the days of her youth, as in the day when she came up from the land of Egypt!" When the Lord's covenant bride will return to the wildernessreturn to the land in-betweenreturn to the land of her espousalsshe will singsing as she sang on her exodus from Egypt. Surely, Hosea projects, something remarkable is afoot. A new wedding song? First creation songnew creation song; old exodus chorusnew exodus choruses; former wedding song for the pilgrim bridelatter wedding song for the bride who sojourns in the end of the age.
Mary's Lukan hymn says something remarkable is afoot, "The Lord has done mighty deeds in remembrance of his mercy to our fathers." Zacharias's Lukan hymn says something remarkable is afoot, "The Lord has visited his people because of his tender mercy with which the Dayspring from on high shall visit us." The angel's Lukan hymn says something remarkable is afoot, "Glory to God and on earth peace." Luke's infancy hymns are hymns of fulfillment. God's promises are being accomplished in this child Jesuscreation promises (now in him, a new creation); covenant promises (now in him, a new covenant); exodus promises (now in him, a new exodus); Davidic promises (now in him, a new David); wedding promises (now in him, a heavenly wedding banquet is prepared).
The remarkable thing which is afoot according to Luke's infancy hymns is that God's Son has come to incarnate not only human flesh, God's Son has come to incarnate the promises. In his infant to adult life, all the promises of the former era are lived, embodied, incarnated. The incarnation of the person of God's Son is the incarnation of the history of God's promises. And this child's accomplishment of those promises means they are once and for all accomplished for us. The promises of God are Yea and Amen in this child; and they are Yea and Amen in us who belong to this child. Luke is writing to us in songssongs of the fulfillment of God's promises through his infant Son, Jesus Christ. As you sing with Mary's Magnificat, as you sing with Zacharias's Benedictus, as you sing with the angels's Gloriayou sing that that remarkable shift from promise to fulfillment belongs to you in Christ Jesus. Mary's words are your song; Zacharias's words are your song; the angels's words are your song. In Christ, you now sing the hymns of your infant Lord.
But what of Simeon? What of Simeon and his song? Patient, long suffering Simeon. What of Simeon's Nunc Dimittis? He sings his song forty days after the birth of the child he holds in his arms. Jesus is nearly six weeks old when he is brought to the Temple by his devout parentshis devout and poor parents. Devout because Mary and Joseph perform the requirements of the ceremonial law. Luke lays great emphasis upon the obedience of the parents of Jesus by emphasizing no less than three times in verses 22-24 that they act in accordance with the law of the Lord. But these upright parents are pooras with so many others in Luke's gospel, the main characters are not the rich and famous, they are the lowly and insignificant poor. Joseph and Mary can afford only a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. Poor and devout Joseph and Mary meet aged and devout Simeon in the Temple courts. An accident? Three times Luke tells us the Holy Spirit was upon aged and devout Simeon. How profoundly does Luke foreshadow for us, in the work of the Holy Spirit upon Simeon, the descent of the Spirit in the second volume of his record of the gospelnamely the Spirit outpouring at Pentecost in Acts 2. It is the Holy Spirit who overshadows the virgin Mary in that miraculous conception; it is the Holy Spirit who fills Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist and causes her to bless the fruit of Mary's womb; it is the Holy Spirit who prophecies through Zacharias. It is in the Spirit that Simeon meets the child and his parents.
Old Simeonnewborn child. Aged Simeonforty-day-old child. Simeon whose long life is nearing its end. The child Jesus whose young life is just beginning. Last days of the old patriarch; first days of the young infant. There is a vivid contrast between the old and newno, not just the contrast between the gray hair and the babe. Something remarkable is afoot. Aged Simeon waitswaits to diewaits to embrace a newborn child before he steps aside. He holds the new, clutches him to his breast, recites his song, returns him to his parents and disappears. Do you see that in verse 35? Simeon disappears. The old patriarch steps down from the stage. Aged Simeon, full of the Spirit, disappears and leaves the newborn babe in the spotlight. The old is gone; it has been supercededit has been transcended by the new! Do you see it? The rest of Luke's gospel is about the baby become a man. The rest of Luke's drama is about the new. Jesus takes the spotlight from Simeon and Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and Zacharias and Elizabeth. Jesus takes the spotlight and turns it on himself because he is the remarkably new thing God has done for the salvation of his people. The newborn child is the center of the story. Luke's story is about the child Jesus, not about aged Simeon.
The child is the consolation of Israelthe child is the Lord's Messiahthe child is the one in whom our eyes behold salvationthe child is the light and the glory. Simeon takes the child and confessesLet me go, O Lord! O Lord, let this child remain. Dear Lord, my eyes have fulfilled their destiny. Close my eyes, O Lord, let my eyes shut in peace, for my eyes have beheld your gift, my eyes have possessed your promised Savior. My eyesmy eyes, O Lordcan become dark, for I have seen your light, I have beheld the glory of the Lord.
And did you notice in this remarkable transition from the old to the new, did you notice how passive and silent is the new in the presence of the old? The child Jesus is brought to the Temple, he is taken in Simeon's arms. He passively submits to the law in fulfillment of all that the former era required. What is done to him is done according to the custom of the law and Jesus submitspassively submits. What is spoken of him is spoken by figures who represent the best of the Old Testament erathe best of the law and the prophets: Mary, Zacharias, Angels, Simeon, Anna. They speak; he is silent. What the law and the prophets portend is directed to this childthis passive, silent child! So that when this child does speakhis words and deeds will fulfil the law and the prophets. Is this not exactly what Luke tells us at the end of his gospel? that Jesus taught his disciples on the road to Emmaus how he was to fulfill "all the things which were written of him in the Law of Moses and the Prophets." The infancy narratives of Luke's gospel are replete with the end of the law and the prophets; their final appearance is to give way to the fullness himself. Jesus, not Simeon. Jesus, not the shepherds. Jesus, not Zacharias, Elizabeth or even Mary. The new silently accepts the witness of the law and the prophets and then bursts forth in a torrent of word and deed revelation demonstrating the passing away of the old. Like Simeon, the Old Testament economy passes awaypasses away in fulfillment. Farewell, says Simeon! Farewell, says the former era! In peace, farewell! The Old Testament economy, as Simeon, is dismissed in peace. This child is all the light and the glory of the law and the prophets. This child is everything longed for by the law and the prophets. Simeon has seen the light and the gloryand Simeon is contentcontent to leave the stagecontent to diecontent to disappearbecause the child Jesus has come! All things have become new; even for righteous and devout Simeon, everything has changed.
Remarkable is the change in Simeon's song regarding the objects of salvation. In the Nunc Dimittis, for the first time in Luke's infancy hymns, we learn that salvation will include the Gentiles. The last advent hymn of Luke's gospel invokes the saving blessing of God at last upon the Gentiles. Foreshadowing the second volume of Luke's inspired writing in which the apostles bear the glad tidings of Jesus to Asia Minor and Macedonia and Greece and Rome, Simeon announces the remarkable new thing that is afoot: Koreans, Filipinos, Chinese, Hispanic, Native American, Afro-American, Caucasian, even Scots-Irishthe nations will come to the light and behold the glorythe glory of the Lord, his Son, our Redeemer.
Simeon beholds the Messiahhe holds the Messiah; what a marvelous change. What every longing Hebrew heart desired, Simeon cradles in his arms. Simeon looks for the consolation of Israelhe beholds the consolation of Israelhe holds the salvation of the Lord in his arms. Indeed, what a wondrous change! To embrace the Christ; to possess the light and the glory; to clasp the redemption of IsraelBless the Lord, O my Soul! Simeon beholds the revelation to the Gentiles; Simeon holds the salvation of the nations; Simeon clutches to his heart the Savior of the world. Alleluia, what a wondrous change has come!
But our text contains more than Simeon's song. Simeon's song is followed by Simeon's oracle: this child is a sign to be opposed. The Latin text reads contradico. This child will endure contradiction. And a sworda piercing swordwill accompany this child. What ironic juxtaposition. Simeon's sweet benediction immediately followed by an ominous contradiction. Not mere opposition, but opposition which carries with it the image of the instrument of death. As if this piercing sword will sever life in death! This child's life is overshadowed by death. Strange juxtapositiona dying Simeon prepares to surrender his life; an infant child takes up his newborn life. Yet the dying patriarch draws the child within his own circle as he enfolds the child in his dying arms. There is life in Simeon's song, but ironically there is death in Simeon's oracle.
The sublime Dutch painter, Rembrandt, has a portrait entitled "The Holy Family." It is a quiet domestic scene of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus. The happy advent of the child is portrayed in the peaceful contentment of the family's surroundings. But as we look more closely, we notice Joseph at work at his carpenter's bench; and the piece of wood that he is carving resembles a cross. Rembrandt cannot portray the birth of the Christ-child without portending his death. So too, Simeon's songit is followed by his foreboding prophecy.
Simeon's oracular remarks, like Rembrandt's Joseph carving, remind us of Calvary because Christmas is inevitably followed by Good Friday. We know the rest of the storyas Simeon did not. Righteous and devout Simeon is still an Old Testament figurestill peering behind that veil that separates the full disclosure of God's remarkable plan of salvation from its promises, its types, its shadows, its anticipations. As wonderful as Simeon's song is, it is still a song short of the resurrection. As remarkable a thing as Simeon perceived was afoot, you and I have perceived a more remarkable thing. The full story of the life of this child is his undeserved deathsurely the contradiction of sinners! And his glorious resurrectionsurely the justification of believing sinners. We know that Christmas is followed by Easter.
May I bring you once again to the Temple? to aged Simeon in the Spirit laying his eyes upon Jesus for the first and last timeand taking Jesus in his arms to sing a song of fulfillment. And may I invite you to embrace this child as the Christ, the long-expected Messiah; may I urge youmay I beg youto cradle him in your dying arms as your salvationthe sweet, everlasting consolation of your soul? May I remind you that there is no peaceno peace in life or in deathexcept in and through this childthe Savior of sinnersJew and Gentile alike.
And as you cuddle him by faith through grace, as you sing with Simeon, may I assure you that this child holds youthis child holds you in his living arms. And as you cuddle him by faith through grace, as you sing with Simeon, may I assure you that this child sings a song over youthat this child sings heaven's song of life eternal because this Christmas child is at the same time the Easter child.
All heaven sings at the incarnation of the Son of God, our Savior. And all heaven sings at the resurrection of the Son of God, our Savior. And so you sing: with Simeon, and the angels, and Zacharias and Mary, and the elect from Israel and the Gentiles. Magnificat, Benedictus, Gloria in Excelsis, Nunc Dimittis, Hallelujah!
Northwest Theological Seminary