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Faithful Vigil Ended

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” Luke 2.25-32.

On 2 February each year – forty days after Christmas – the church traditionally celebrates the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple; though the day is also known as Candlemas because of the ancient practice of blessing the candles on that day that will be used throughout the year ahead. Given Simeon’s description of Jesus as a “light” however, the two feasts are not entirely unconnected.

Simeon had, it seems, been waiting for a long time to see what he here describes as God’s “salvation”. But how do you see a “salvation”? The Greek is sōtērion but go back to the Hebrew behind it and the word is yesha’ – which is, of course, to all intents and purposes, the name “Jesus” itself – yeshua’ . As the angel said to Joseph: “Mary will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus (Hebrew Yeshua’), because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1.22). “Jesus” means “salvation”. And that, incidentally, reveals the lovely pun that Jesus made on his own name after he had spent some time with Zacchaeus who had then publicly repented of all his chicanery and fraud – “Today salvation (yesha’) has come to this house”/”Today Jesus (Yeshua’) has come to this house” (Luke 19.9). When you see Jesus you see salvation. When you receive Jesus you receive salvation.

That is what Simeon was recognizing when he held Jesus in his hands. As he gazed on this fragile little bundle of flesh and blood, it was suddenly born in upon him that this tiny human being was in himself God’s rescue package. All God’s saving purposes for the world and everything in it were embodied and wrapped up in Jesus – this child in front of him. And then Simeon recalls the promise in Isaiah 52.10 that “all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God” and it dawns upon him: This is what is now happening! Maybe he laughed with the sheer chutzpah of it. In full view of Jews, Greeks, Romans, people from all over the known world, Mary had just walked through the temple courts to the Court of Women with the “salvation of God” in her arms! As her belly had swelled over the previous nine months, God had prepared within her the Saviour of the World  in plain sight of all around her. And now he was here and as he would develop and grow and begin to teach and heal and reach out to everyone he encountered, so he would shine with the love of God and the grace of God and the mercy of God. And that light would spill out way beyond Israel. Yes, Jesus would be the glory of Israel (even if Israel is slow to see him as such) but he would be more – he would “lighten the Gentiles”. He would bring the knowledge of the one true God to people all over the world for they would see that God for themselves in the face of Jesus.

Simeon heaved a sigh of relief. The waiting was over. God, his master (“Sovereign Lord” translates despotēs), had set him, a slave (“servant” translates doulos), to stand on the walls and watch for the coming of this very One. Now he had arrived and Simeon’s duty was done. He could stand down and live out the rest of his days in peace. And so can we.

Faithful vigil ended,
watching, waiting cease;
“Master, grant thy servant
his discharge in peace.”

All thy Spirit promised,
all the Father willed,
now these eyes beheld it
perfectly fulfilled.

This thy great deliv’rance
sets thy people free;
Christ their light uplifted
all the nations see.

Christ, thy people’s glory!
Watching, doubting cease;
grant to us thy servants
their discharge in peace.

Timothy Dudley-Smith

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