The Canticle of Simeon and the End of an Era

The Song of Simeon (nunc dimittis) lies within St. Luke’s Presentation narrative (2:21-40) in which he recounts that forty days after His birth, Jesus is presented in the Temple as the first-born male and a sacrifice is offered. Simeon, a devout Jew awaiting the “consolation of Israel”, recognizes Jesus as the Messiah as soon as he sees Him, breaking out in a song of praise.

But St. Luke omits something in the narrative:

“When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth” (vs. 39).

Why does St. Luke skip the Magi, Herod, the murder of the Innocents, and the flight to Egypt, all of which occurred before the Holy Family returned to Nazareth? Since Luke was undoubtedly aware of those events, their omission might reflect a specific purpose in his writing. Recall that Luke’s gospel constituted a letter written to a man named Theophilus:

“…I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, Most Excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received” (Luke 1:3-4).

The title “Most Excellent” informs us that Theophilus was a high-ranking Roman official, and the Roman hierarchy generally saw the followers of Jesus as just one of the many competing Jewish sects, and a very troublesome one. In the book of Acts, Luke describes the consequences of the strategy of the early Christians in targeting the synagogues throughout the Empire. It often led to civil unrest, forcing the Roman authorities to intervene on behalf of the Jews.

In this narrative Luke wanted to demonstrate that as the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, Christians should be recognized by the Empire in the same manner that it formally recognized the Jewish religion. He does this by showing that from the very beginning Jesus and His family exhibited perfect obedience to the Jewish law. The young family acted…

“…according to the law of Moses” (vs. 22).

“…just as it is written in the law of the Lord” (vs. 23).

“…in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord” (vs. 24).

“…to perform the custom of the law in regard to him” (vs. 27).

Luke also emphasizes the same with regard to Simeon and his life-long devotion to the Law and the Prophets. Simeon is described as,

“…righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the holy Spirit was upon him.”

Anna is similarly described:

“She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.

Both Simeon and Anna witnessed the fulfillment of the Jewish hope in God’s promise of the Messiah. Luke informs us that they were very old; his comments on their advanced age are meant to demonstrate to Theophilus that the elderly pair understood that the end of their lives coincided with the end of the era of the Law and the Prophets. Filled with the Spirit, Simeon declares as he holds baby Jesus in his arms,

“Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel” (vss. 25-32).

Simeon is recalling the prophecy of Isaiah, “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Is. 49:6).

But Simeon adds that the Jews will not accept Jesus, referring to the infant as “…a sign that will be contradicted”. This is the meaning of “the hearts of many will be revealed”, suggesting to Theophilus that the true cause of the rioting at the synagogues is the stubborn refusal of most of the Jews to accept that God’s salvation was to be extended to “all the nations” as taught by their own prophets. Luke’s task was a difficult one; he needed to convince this influential Roman who was sympathetic to Christianity that in it the promises of the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled in spite of its rejection by the Jews.

The Catholic Church recognizes that the Jewish religion represents her patrimony and that Catholics, Jewish and non-Jewish, are children of Abraham. This is reflected in her liturgy; for example, the first Eucharistic prayer:

“Look with favor on these offerings and accept them as once you accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchizedek.”



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