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“When the elder Simeon held the Christ Child in his arms at their meeting in the temple on the fortieth day after Jesus’ birth, he said that he was now ready to die…’Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, / According to Thy word, / For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation / Which Thou has prepared before the face of all people, / A light to enlighten the Gentiles, / And the glory of Thy people, Israel.’ These words are placed on the lips of all Christians at the end of each day…because all who have met the Lord are ready to die, for their eyes have beheld the salvation of the world.” (Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Winter Pascha: Readings for the Christmas-Epiphany Season, p. 179, emphasis added)
Yesterday was the celebration of Jesus’ presentation at the temple, 40 days after Christmas, when he was brought to Jerusalem for Mary’s ritual purification and was seen by Simeon and Anna, who had been waiting for his birth far into their old age. Today celebrates St. Simeon (this St. Simeon not this one) in the Orthodox calendar, albeit not the Anglican one. I like the Orthodox calendar’s emphasis on continued celebration and continued marking of the life of the young Jesus.
In all the icons I could find, Simeon’s eyes do not show the joy one (I) would expect. Above, they seem sad, and extremely thoughtful, as if remembering all that he has seen while he has waited. I find myself wondering if this Simeon is more modern, a Simeon who has seen a world which Christ has saved but which is still full of suffering, violence, and evil. Or maybe Simeon knows something that we don’t know about what it means to meet Jesus.
Fr. Hopko writes, ”all who have met the Lord are ready to die.” I have been with a lot of dying people and a lot of dying Christians in the past year. Plenty are vocally not ready to die. Some are verbally very ready to die, but their tone is more piety than conviction. Fewest of all perhaps are those who (at least seem to) accept death with peace.
I find myself wondering what it means to be ‘ready to die.’ Above, I used the words ’with peace’, but should peacefulness really be the criterion of a good death, or of a faithful Christian death? Personally, when death comes nearest to me, I’m angry at it. Death comes to steal, kill, and destroy. Death crushes and maims. Why would anyone be surprised that some of us fight it bitterly? What’s wrong with fighting our enemy? (Well, for one, Jesus says to love our enemies, and although I’m not sure how that applies to death, I’m almost certain it does apply.)
St. Simeon, after he has seen Jesus, sings out ”God, you can take me now, because I have seen the Savior you have sent to save the world.” Somehow, seeing the Savior (even the 6 1/2-week-old Savior) has readied Simeon for death. Part of this is God’s promise to him that he would not die until he had seen the Christ; part of this, as Hopko suggests, is that truly meeting the Savior necessarily readies us for death.
The Eastern churches call Simeon “the God-Receiver” because he received God into his arms, but all those who believe are God-receivers as well. And for us just as for Simeon, there is a connection between our receiving God and our receiving death. In receiving God, we receive the Life-Giver (as Jesus says in John 5), but in receiving God we also receive the Death-Receiver, the Incarnate God who took death into his body, who absorbed it into his man-made wounds. Simeon is rightly called the God-Receiver, but perhaps it is just as accurate to call him the Death-Receiving-God-Receiver. That is, God is a death-receiving God, and the one who receives God is enabled to become a death-receiver in a way which was impossible before receiving the death-receiving God. Because death has been taken into Christ’s body, when we enter death we are taken into Christ’s body as well.
We are a God-receiving people. We are a death-receiving people. God is a death-receiving God. We are a death-receiving-God-receiving people. And in the moment in which Simeon holds Jesus in his arms, which we see in the icon which began this post, we can see that Simeon doesn’t know what to do with this knowledge. His eyes give him away.
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