Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The Fourth Sunday after The Epiphany, 2019.
Among the prophetic words spoken by Simeon in the Temple when forty-day-old Jesus was presented in the Temple according to Jewish religious law, and also Mary presenting herself for purification in likewise custom, were these: “For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles.” The Church continues to chant and pray these words every evening as the light of the day begins to fade, in part as constant reminder that the light of Christ is a light of revelation—the Light in which darkness is no longer darkness, for with Christ the night is as clear as the day. The man Simeon is regarded in ancient Church tradition as being one of the seventy biblical scholars who translated the Old Testament into Greek.
The image of this old man beholding baby Jesus and recognizing in Him He through Whom all things have been made—and recognizing in this moment the fulfilment of all that the prophets had told—is too much for words. Better to sing the words daily and allow the image to work on our imaginations like water works on rough rocks making them smooth. By the time of the Ascension of Jesus to the Right Hand of the Father, the only person still alive from that event in the Temple thirty-three years prior was Mary, and it is surely her who told of this and many other stories of Jesus to the early Church, helping to fire their imaginations and hearts with the divine, out-pouring spark.
In those words from Simeon is a message that Jesus is universal: that the salvation brought by Christ is a universal salvation, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles—more than for Jews only. (But of course, to their glory.) The early Church needed this teaching because even after the death of Jesus, and probably for decades still after His death, the Church had a hard time letting go of the idea that the Messiah would be a political hero. That expectation had been ingrained within the Jewish religious culture for centuries, and to great extent it was a reasonable expectation when the idea of “messiah” was considered within Jewish political history and reality. If the Temple was going to be fully rebuilt, the occupiers of the Temple (the Romans) would have to be overthrown. And that would take a political revolution. They were not just going to give control of the Temple away. It had to be taken by force.
Jesus often taught that He was no such messiah, and it was always a message poorly received by His Jewish audiences. Such is what we hear in our lesson from Saint Luke. What kind of Messiah is He? It is to be a prophetic messiah—“Today this scripture (which was from Isaiah) has been fulfilled in your hearing,” He preached. Jesus is situating Himself and His ministry in the prophetic line. This is directly after proclaiming these words from Isaiah: ““The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Not a political hero, but a Messiah who announces good news to the poor, blind, captive, oppressed—and, lonely.
And then Jesus brings to his audience’s mind the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Their healing ministry, Jesus reminded everyone, was not to the Jews in need but to the Gentiles, and even a small group. His ministry was universal salvation, offered freely to Gentiles. This was the first time in Luke’s Gospel that this aspect of Christ’s mission was revealed, and it was nothing short of scandal. That He was for all, not just for them. And after Christ’s Ascension, I have little doubt that such scandal lingered in people’s imagination. It took Blessed Mary again being a Mother to the Church and telling them that her Son’s ministry has been universal and for all since the beginning. God revealed this to Simeon, she would have told them. Yes, He is our King, for Gabriel told me that “the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever.” He is our King, she assured them, but He is also their King, the King of all, the King of kings and Light of lights.
Brothers and sisters, let us be heartened by our universal God, as the Magi themselves acknowledged when they came to pay Him homage. Let us not keep our loving and gracious God to ourselves, but follow the star of Christ as He leads us to the poor, the lonely, the dispirited, of Tazewell County. Through our ministry called by God, the hearts of the lonely will be warmed. God’s presence has made us holy—through His word, through His most Precious Body and Blood—not so that we can hold onto Him only for ourselves, but that lonely people in Tazewell County can find Him through us.