Every year on secular Groundhog’s Day, Holy Mother Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady’s Purification and Our Lord’s Presentation in the Temple. Like the Circumcision, it shows how Our Lord who had created the law and who was above it also submitted to it in all humility and obedience. He did this so that He could be more like us and so that we could be more like Him.
The Feast of the Purification reminds us also of Simeon. St. Luke does not tell us a great deal about Simeon except that he had been told by God he would not see until he saw the Messiah in the flesh. He was most certainly a devout Jew who spent a lot of time in the Temple and who waited for many long years to see the One who had been promised to his people. When he finally did so, he proclaimed one of the most beautiful hymns of the Church:
“O Lord, let your servant depart in peace for mine eyes have seen Your salvation which have You have wrought in the sight of all nations. A light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Your people Israel.”
This prayer, commonly known as the “Nunc Dimittis,” is sung by priests, religious, and lay people every night before going to bed and forms the nucleus of the Hour known as Compline. It is a most beautiful hymn to sing before going to bed. In it, we thank God for all of the graces the He has bestowed upon in His mercy during the day and we ask Him that He continue to be the glory of His people, the New Israel, the Church.
Yet there is more to this hymn than what I have said above. The Nunc Dimittis speaks to us about a much more profound truth. You see, my dear readers, before the time of Our Lord, it was not possible for a mortal man to see God and live. Even when Moses saw God on Mount Sinai, he only saw God’s “hind parts” and not His face. The same was true for Ezekiel and the other prophets. What they saw were only parts of God and they did not yet see Him fully.
Why is that? Why is it that God did not show Himself to these men as a mortal man in the flesh? Why did He have to wait four thousand years before Simeon finally saw Him? The truth is that men were not prepared. Apart from the prophets and other seers, the world did not yet know God. It did not know Him because it was sleeping in idolatry. It did not know Him because He had not yet come and shed His blood for the world.
As St. John the Evangelist wrote even His own did not receive Him. If we read the Old Testament, we know that God truly loved Israel. He liberated the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, He gave them judges to be their rulers, and eventually instituted a monarchy for them. Yet the Israelites did not listen to God well enough. There were times when they did. More times than not, however, they were deaf to His message.
When the fullness of time had arrived, however, Our Lord appeared on this earth as one of us. Like us, He was born as a tiny infant and wrapped in swaddling clothes. He knew hunger, cold, and thirst, He felt everything that we feel, and He cried out to His Mother and St. Joseph for help. Indeed, He was the most helpless of us all and yet in that same little body was our God incarnate.
When Simeon saw the Child Jesus, he knew intuitively that He was the One who had come to deliver His people and set them free. Like so many others, he had been waiting and waiting for the Messiah to come.
During those troubled times in Judea, numerous false messiahs had come and gone. Some of them offered the people real hope, while others were merely swindlers who were much more interested in money or some other such thing. Simeon probably knew some of them and heard about their deeds, but he also probably knew in his heart that they were not Him. He waited and waited until the day finally arrived.
The Nunc Dimittis is not only an evening hymn and a New Testament canticle. It is not only a prayer of thanksgiving to God, but also a humble act of homage. When Simeon held the Child in his arms, he paid homage to Him in the only way he knew how. He thanked Him for having counted Him worthy to be among those who would see Him in the flesh as He really was. Not only this, but He was among those who would see Him in His gentlest guise as a helpless Child.
In our own lives, we too are sometimes like the aged Simeon. We often wander for years wondering where we are supposed to go and what God wants us to do. We have our own false messiahs just like the Jews did. False friends come and go with every passing day. There are also those other messiahs that we think will help us and those are even more insidious (bad reading, bad company, alcohol, smoking, and certain kinds of television programs).
When none of these messiahs bring us what we want or what we really need, we are back at square one. We go back to standing in the Temple of our souls and waiting for Him. We wait for Him because we know that He is there. Sometimes, it will be months or years before He physically manifests Himself to us or speaks to us Yet when He does, He appears as He did to Simeon. As a little Child asking us to help Him so that we can help our own selves.