Every Christmas time, I am struck anew by the story of Simeon in Luke’s gospel.
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, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
“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.”
The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. 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, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
– Luke 2:25-35
In my mind, Simeon is an aged, wizened man with wispish hair and a walking stick. I imagine that he’s been waiting for the Messiah for many decades, living well beyond his years in patient expectation of meeting Jesus. Moments after he sees Jesus in the Temple courts, he collapses in a dignified heap with a broad smile across his face. He has seen his Saviour.
The narrative doesn’t give that kind of indication, though.
In fact, we know almost nothing about Simeon aside from his witness. We don’t know where he came from; how old he was; how rich he was; how long ago the Holy Spirit had told him that he would see the Messiah; why he had done so; how long he lived afterwards.
It might seem a strange thing to write, but I’m actually quite glad that we know so little about Simeon. The sparse personal description helps us to identify with Simeon not for his personal circumstances or social status, but for what he put his trust in.
In Simeon’s time, this was a Christmas story. He was expecting the ‘consolation of Israel’ – the coming comfort of God’s people that Isaiah had spoken about when the King would come and redeem them as a shepherd and lamb and lion and king and all sorts of other things. He knew the Holy Spirit, and had specific revelation from him, indicating a firm faith in and intimate relationship with God. He trusted in God’s salvation, and found it fulfilled in Jesus. This salvation was for the nations, for Jews and Gentiles. Satisfied in that faith, he desired nothing else in life than to have seen Christ.
For us, this is still a Christmas story. It speaks of God come down to rescue us, bringing glory to him and blessings on the nations of the world. We can empathise with Simeon’s satisfaction in having seen Jesus; the rest for the soul that comes from knowing him as our Lord and saviour and having the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.
But it is an Advent story for us, too. We can also empathise with Simeon before he sees Christ, patiently waiting for God to visit him and bring the consolation of Israel. For while we know Christ and have his Spirit in us, we are still awaiting the day when God’s promises will be finally and fully fulfilled when Jesus returns.
Advent, we often forget, is a time of preparation not for Christmas but for the return of Christ. Until that day, we live torn between the two Simeons. In some ways, we are like Simeon after he met Jesus at the temple, joyful in the knowledge of his salvation. In other ways, we are like Simeon before he met Jesus, waiting for the redemption of the world and the final fulfillment of the things God has begun his work to complete.
As Advent gives way to Christmas, Simeon serves as a fantastic model to us in living now with Christ, but not yet living with him; in knowing him but knowing that one day we will know him more fully. Let’s look to Simeon with his patience and contentment to teach us how to sing at once ‘ Joy to the world! the Lord is come’ and ‘ O come, O come, Emmanuel’.
This article was originally written for the Big Bible Project.