I have a new favourite TV show. My husband hates it. It’s called One Born Every Minute. My husband Bevan wonders what kind of sick and twisted person I am, that I would actually want to watch women in labour and giving birth. There’s screaming, swearing, blood and guts, and yet I think there is something incredibly special about the birth of a baby—and that’s why I watch it.
I assure you that I’m not sick and twisted; I just love the idea of a new life coming into the world. I love the stories of the families. I love the strength of the women and I love the silly things the fathers say and do to pass the time.
‘The greatest forces in the world are not earthquakes and thunderbolts. The greatest forces in the world are babies,’ said Dr E.T. Sullivan. Why? Perhaps it’s because in a baby we are reminded that for all the bad things that happen in the world, there is still hope and life, innocence and a future. Babies make a difference. Babies change things.
But no baby born would ever change things in this world as much as Jesus. His birth was one out of the box! Jesus was not surrounded by midwives and cameras, but he was watched from heaven and was surrounded by singing. No child has ever had more songs written about them than Jesus. First Mary, then Zechariah, the angels, and finally Simeon, all sung about the significance of Jesus’s birth.
Simeon’s song, or the ‘Nunc Dimittis’ (from its opening words in Latin) is perhaps the least known of all the Christmas songs, so let’s take a look at the song and the story that surrounds it.
After narrating Jesus’ birth and subsequent visit from shepherds, Luke writes:
On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived. 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 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord’), 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 (Luke 2:21–24).
These verses are often read as one event, but actually they seem to be a combination of three important Jewish rituals that took place when the first born child was a son:
1. Circumcision: just as John the Baptist had been circumcised and named (Luke 1:59); in parallel, Luke includes the circumcision and naming of Jesus. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant between the Israelites and God, which God commanded for all descendants of Abraham (Genesis 17:12).
2. Purification after birth: when a son was born, the law required that 40 days after the birth, the mother be purified. Mary, Joseph and Jesus headed to the temple to do what custom required.
3. Consecration of the firstborn: inserted in the middle of Mary’s purification we find this tradition. It began when God spared the lives of the firstborn Israelite sons, leading to their escape from slavery in Egypt. From then on, firstborn sons were to be dedicated to God’s service (Exodus 3:12–13). However, a son could be bought back from God’s service for the price of five shekels (20 denarii). This custom is mentioned here, but there is no mention of it being paid for Jesus. Presumably this is because he wasn’t bought back; his life was dedicated to God.
Why did Luke include these three rituals in such a muddled up way? He wanted to show that Mary and Joseph were devout, pious Jews following every aspect of the law.
So after explaining why the family were at the temple, Luke goes on to tell us what happened when they were there (2:25–28):
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. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 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
We know little about Simeon. Some have presumed that since he was at the temple, he was a priest. Tradition has it that Simeon was 113! Well, we are not told his age, but his readiness to leave this earth might suggest that he had reached the end of a long life. What we do know is that he was righteous, meaning his life was right before man; and he was devout, meaning his life was right before God.
If Simeon was elderly and/or was a priest then two interesting parallels can be found. The account of Simeon, which later includes Anna, echoes that of Hannah and Eli (see 1 Samuel 1–2). In both accounts, a baby is conceived miraculously, taken to an elderly priest at temple and given over to God’s service. Also, the words that Luke used to describe John the Baptist’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, are the same that he uses to describe Simeon: righteous and devout. Both Simeon and Zechariah may have been elderly priests. And both sang.
Simeon was waiting for ‘consolation’, or the ‘comfort’ of Israel. The comfort he longed for was the coming of the Messiah. He hoped for God’s anointed to come and bring restoration. A traditional Jewish prayer was, ‘May I see the consolation of Israel.’ Simeon’s prayer was answered that day when ‘the parents brought in the child Jesus’.
The Holy Spirit has already been active in Luke’s infancy narratives, overshadowing Mary, inspiring people’s words, and now working in Simeon. Prior to Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came only on certain individuals to empower them for certain special tasks, so it is unusual that the Holy Spirit was on Simeon.
But it was important for Luke’s audience to understand that God was working through Simeon to reveal the identity of the child. It was the Holy Spirit who led Simeon to be in the right place at the right time. It was the Holy Spirit who revealed to Simeon the destiny of the child and his significance for the world. Led by the Spirit, Simeon saw that salvation had come in the form of a child.
God had promised Simeon that he would see his salvation, and after years of waiting, that promise was now fulfilled. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Simeon began to sing, beginning on a note of praise as he took Jesus in his arms:
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel (Luke 2:29–32).
Simeon embraced the child in his arms. Literally this reads, he ‘received into his bent arms,’ as Raymond Brown says. This beautiful image has led to Simeon being referred to as the ‘Theodochus’, the God-receiver.
Simeon declares that there is nothing left for him to see. He has seen God’s salvation. And as God’s servant, he requests that God dismiss or release him in peace. Simeon is not afraid of death. He is ready and at peace because he knows that salvation has come. It was present right then.
Zechariah’s song prophesied that God had come to his people. That is, salvation had come to Israel. Simeon, however, had a wider view of salvation. He grasped that the significance of this child was not just for Israel, but for the whole world. Simeon declared that God’s salvation was for all nations.
Salvation for everyone was one of Luke’s key messages. Luke was a Gentile probably writing to a largely Gentile audience. It was important to Luke that his audience knew they were included in God’s saving plan and that no one remained outside God’s reach—no matter where they were from.
Simeon’s words, as recorded by Luke, hint at what Luke will write about in his second volume, the book of Acts. Here, through people like Paul, we see the gospel beginning to spread around the world and people from many nations becoming believers.
The final book of the Bible, Revelation, looks to a time when a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, will stand before the throne and before the Lamb (Revelation 7:9). Jesus had come to save the world—all of it!
The child that Simeon held would be a light to the Gentiles, pointing them to God. He would bring glory to Israel. His birth would change the world.
Jesus’ birth would mean that anyone, regardless of race, class or gender, could know God’s salvation. That anyone could die in peace.
His death and resurrection meant that the Holy Spirit would come, not just to special people for special tasks, but to anyone who stretched out their bent arms to receive him.
This Christmas, let’s be like Simeon, having our footsteps guided by God, our words filled with his praise, and our hands open to receive him.