Luke 2: 22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”[b]), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”25 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 on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 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, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: 29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him.34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.
What do you notice about this painting of Simeon holding the Christ child, by Rembrandt Van Rijn?
First, the light: Simeon, the woman next to him (is it Maria?) and the Christ child are illuminated by a light from above, from heaven. That’s Rembrandt’s way of saying that not only is Jesus is heaven’s gift to us, so are our sight and understanding of Jesus gifts from heaven.
Secondly, notice the eyes: the eyes of the Christ child are squarely upon Simeon. But what about Simeon’s eyes? Where are they looking? We can’t tell, really. They’re largely closed, but not completely. That leads some to suggest that Simeon is being portrayed here as blind. He has seen the Christ child, as God had promised he would, but with an interior light and sight, given by heaven.
Third: What about the ages of the people involved? On one end of the life spectrum there is the newborn, Jesus. Looking at the baby’s features, I think, Rembrandt definitely knew babies. At the far other end of life’s journey, there is Simeon, who is ready to pass on to eternity, we know through his prayer, “Now Lord, let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your Salvation, according to your promise, which you have prepared in the sight of all peoples….”
In between those two life stages seems to stand the woman to Simeon’s left. She looks too young to be the other prophet in the story, Anna. I think she is Jesus’ mother, Maria. Each of them stands at the end of one life stage and at the threshold of another: Jesus, just born, entering childhood; Maria, just entering parenthood, or at least adulthood; Simeon, about to enter eternity. I think that’s Rembrandt’s way of saying that in all of life’s journey, at every stage, God meets us there; God has a gift for us, God has a task for us, and God has something wonderful to show us.
Now for something kind of spooky, but in a good way: This was the very last painting ever done by Rembrandt. In fact, it was discovered in his studio, on the day after his death in 1669. And it is unfinished. You can tell, because the outline of Simeon’s hands is only roughed in, and there’s plenty of space on the canvas left unfilled. It was an incomplete product at the time that death brought this portrait to a halt, like Rembrandt himself was an incomplete product. Indeed, like any of us, at any age and stage of this life’s journey, including the end.
It gives me goose bumps to think that just before he died, Rembrandt was working on the portrait of a man who knew he was about to die. Simeon accepted that, for he was praying, “Now let your servant depart in peace…” Did Rembrandt know that about himself, too, that he was soon to die? And, like Simeon, did he accept it? Something about this very painting suggests to me Yes, and Yes: Yes, Rembrandt also knew he was not long for this life; and Yes, he was using this painting as a way of coming to terms with it, accepting it, and even saying so to us.
I say that because of one more spooky thing: Rembrandt’s model for Simeon was probably… Rembrandt. Compare Simeon with Rembrandt’s earlier self-portraits, and Simeon looks like you’d expect an older version of his younger self to look. If so, that makes this painting Rembrandt’s last self-portrait. That he painted himself as Simeon also makes this painting something like Rembrandt’s dying confession of faith, even, his final prayer, in paint, as if to say, I too am ready to depart in peace; I, who was granted the eyes of an artist, long to see what Simeon and Anna saw, and whom they saw. I am going to see the Jesus who has always seen me with the eyes of interest, care, concern and compassion that I painted on to this baby. I shall see him with my new heavenly eyes of wonder, adoration and joy.
If I could ask Simeon and Anna a question or two, I would start with this: How did you know that this baby was God’s long-awaited Messiah, whom that Galilean couple carried into the temple? It’s a good thing that you didn’t go up all the young couples with babies coming into the temple and startle them by asking, “Is this the baby that was born in a barn?” No, Luke says that you had heard from God, directly, that you would see the promised Messiah before your death. And that you were moved to come to the Temple that same day by the Holy Spirit. How many years then did you wait until you heard the next whisper from within that told you that on this day you must come to the temple, and that this baby, out of all the babies brought in to the temple every day, for so many years, was the long-promised, long-awaited Word made flesh? Did the voice bearing that news sound like the same still, small voice that the prophet Elijah heard in the cave? A voice on the inward ear of the soul, which had become sensitive to the movement of God’s Spirit through so many hours of prayer, so many nights of vigil, and so many days of fasting, so many hours of studying the Scriptures? So much tutoring and mentoring in the faith from other saints, ever since your childhood? And through so many struggles and troubles that softened your heart and sharpened your hunger for God? Or did the truth come as a vision on the innermost eye with which Job “saw” God and yet lived?
A few more questions for Anna and Simeon: Wouldn’t you expect the newborn King of the Jews to be wealthy and powerful enough to afford the sacrifice of a whole flock of lambs? So, were you surprised that the Messiah would be a poor child of such impoverished parents, who could only afford the hardship sacrifice of two doves?
And were you surprised that the Son of David would be born to homeless, stateless peasants from the cultural and economic backwater of Galilee? People without the right connections, and the wrong accents? Effectively, strangers, sojourners and immigrants from the borderlands to the north, whom Caesar’s census had made into refugees? Especially since all the great movers and shakers in Israel were from Jerusalem and Judea, as were you, But God had given you eyes to see past all those external things, as well.
And there are a few things I would like to say to both Simeon and Anna: First of all, in this life, you were blessed with a foretaste of all that we long to see in the next life. God had told Moses that no mortal could see him, in all the awesome, consuming fire of his holiness and live, not in our mortal, sin-stained state. But you, Simeon and Anna, were granted not only to see God’s likeness and presence in the flesh and live, you got to touch him and hold him in all the tenderness and vulnerability of a baby, and die soon after, in peace. So, even now you got a foretaste of that vision, and that embrace, to come, that we call “heaven.”
Secondly, I would tell them: You are what I want to be when I finally grow up. When I grow up, I want to be like Simeon and Anna. Even at age sixty, I know I still have much growing up to do. If anything, the more years we struggle with the complexities of life, and the more we learn, the more we learn that we have yet so much to learn. That should cause us to grow in humility and openness to surprises. But being open-hearted and open-minded is not the same thing as being empty-headed. To grow the way Simeon and Anna did into their final years, is also to grow in connection and commitment to God, and in the conviction of God’s purposes and promises, and even while we grow more humble and open to the surprising ways that God may accomplish his purposes and promises. Anna and Simeon remained connected and committed to God, and convinced that God would fulfill his promise, to send his Messiah, and to “suddenly come to his temple.” But to come first as a poor, homeless, refugee baby, born to Galilean peasants?
They probably did not see that one coming. But they caught on in time.
Have we also the eyes with which to see the Christ in the homeless refugee child from the wrong side of the tracks? Or the wrong side of the world? Are we yet learning to see Jesus, as Mother Teresa said, in his most distressing disguise of the poor? That takes some growing up to do.
But to be like Anna and Simeon, we also need to “grow inward” or to “grow downward.” Over the years Simeon and Anna grew inwardly, in the depth and strength and sensitivity of their innermost spiritual lives. Luke calls them “righteous and devout,” which means that they had an inner strength that kept them morally strong and straight, like the hard, innermost core of a tree, which keeps it from flopping over and breaking whichever way the wind blows on it. But a tree only develops that kind of strength over time, and by being buffeted by winds.
To be “devout,” means that Anna and Simeon also grew downward, downward into the depths of their souls where God’s Spirit touches our spirits. Like trees, they spread their roots downward toward the spiritual water and nutrients that are hidden within from our superficial view on the surface of things. And so, over time, they became sensitive and responsive to the movements and messages of God.
In a way, Anna also grew down in age, as we see from her open, childlike excitement about this baby Jesus, telling everyone who passes about him. As she got older and more frail on the outside, she got younger in spirit, more childlike, sweeter and stronger on the inside, kind of like a Stradivarius violin. To the eye those fiddles look ancient, because they are: 300 to 400 years old. But the ear tells you that they only get sweeter and more resonant with the years and the playing. Antonio Stradivari made them of wood that was already ancient, from gnarled old pine and maple trees in the Italian Alps that were stressed repeatedly by storms, wind and cold. As Paul told his Corinthian disciples, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” 2 Cor. 4:16-17
Growing down, and growing inwardly, to be like Simeon and Anna: that is the great project of the Christian life: learning to see the one who most truly and clearly sees us, Jesus. And then to see all things as does the One who is the light by which we see all light. To see the world through the eyes of love that ever see us. We don’t have to be advanced in years for that to happen. At every stage and age of life, God has something for us to be and to see, which prepares us for the next stage of life, in which God gives us more to be and to see.
I hope that gives us hope as we face the fears of changes and losses that naturally come with the passing of our years. But they are not only years of loss. There is also much to gain. All our days and years are leading us to a greater, clearer vision of the One who sees us, knows us and loves us better than we do ourselves, until “we shall no longer see as through a glass darkly, but we shall know as we are known.” As John the Beloved put it, “When Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” In the Christian life, then, seeing is not believing. Seeing is becoming.
As the years pass, we don’t have much choice over the matter, should our vision dims and our sense of hearing weaken. But we do have some choice over whether or not the vision of our spirit, and our hearing of God’s still, small voice, grows over time, or not. There’s a wonderful beauty in that kind of aging.
How does that kind of growth happen? Basically, we just keep showing up. Showing up, that is for divine surgery and therapy. Did you realize that when we came for worship this morning, we were checking in for ear training and eye therapy? In our songs, our prayers, in the Bible readings and in this sermon, we are saying things that we still only see by faith, which we will see most clearly only in eternity. In our hymns of praise and conviction, we are joining that heavenly choir to come, whose music is usually drowned out for us by the banging, clanging chaos of the world, and the drumbeats of conflict. In prayer, Bible study and fasting, in our service, witness and labors for God’s Kingdom, in the love we give to others, by enduring in faith through trials and tribulations, we are presenting ourselves to the Great Physician for him to give us another sight with which we shall see him, dimly in this life, clearly in the next. Or maybe it’s that spiritual surgery mentioned in Psalm 40, when the psalmist says, “my ears you have opened.”
Yet, no matter how much we grow in our capacity to see God and to hear him, we will leave this world like Rembrandt’s portrait of Simeon: as unfinished products. We will only have seen in part what we shall one day see in full. But hopefully, there will be something growing in us for others to see, like what the young Jewish woman sensed in an elderly French woman in eastern France, in the town of Le Chambon Sur-Lignon. This young woman and her Jewish parents had spent four years of her childhood there, during the Nazi occupation of France. She and her parents survived because the Protestant church members of Le Chambon hid them and even transported some of them to safety in Spain, Switzerland and Portugal.
After the war, this woman and her family settled here in the United States. Sometime in the 1980’s, she went back to visit Le Chambon and give thanks to all the people who had enabled her to survive. She remembered in particular one stone farmhouse in which she had lived, and as she walked up to it, she saw and recognized a woman, then in her 80’s, out weeding her vegetable garden. Despite the decades, each woman recognized the other, cried out with delight, opened their arms wide and ran to embrace each other. The young woman, began sobbing in the older woman’s embrace, because, she said, she felt something in that other woman that was, “as solid as an oak tree.” Her embrace was soft and welcoming, but her inner core was solid, and deeply rooted. Like Anna and Simeon.
“Eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, what God has prepared for those who love him,” and who long for his appearing. But Simeon and Anna got a foretaste of it, holding the Christ child in the temple that day. Until that day when we shall know as we are known, and see no more as through a glass dimly, Anna and Simeon are what I want to be as I grow up. Or down. Or inward. Or whatever.