The Life of Jesus Christ, and the Art He Inspired: The Song of Simeon
Chapter Six: A Jewish Leader Rejoices in the Promised Messiah
In the sixth chapter of my Illustrated Life of Jesus project, we meet Simeon, a Jewish elder who has been told that he will not die until he sees the Messiah in the flesh with his own eyes. In our previous chapter, we looked at the devotions of the shepherds, whose inclusion in the Nativity revealed God's mercy to the poor and meek of Israel. We also saw how the Three Wise Men represented the gentiles, who had previously been forever cut off from the Covenant with God. Simeon represents the faithful holy people of Israel. He is an important man of the priestly caste - the kind of person that one might expect to be honored with a chance to see the Christ child.
Mysteries of the Rosary, Presentation of Jesus at the Temple by Cornelis de Vos
Le Vieux Siméon by James Tissot
Luke 2: 21 - 35
21 And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the Child, His name was called Jesus, who was so named by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.
22 And when the days of her purification according to the Law of Moses were accomplished, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord
23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord: “Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”),
24 and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord: “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”
25 And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Ghost was upon him.
26 And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for Him after the custom of the law,
28 then he took Him up in his arms, and blessed God and said,
29 “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word;
30 for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation,
31 which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people,
32 a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.”
33 And Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of Him.
34 And Simeon blessed them and said unto Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be spoken against
35 (yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Tapestry of the Purification of the Virgin, artist unknown
Presentation of Jesus at the Temple by Unknown Georgian Artist
Meditation: The Holy Family Keeps the Law
There's a lot of Talmudic tradition referenced in the first two verses of the passage from Luke, above. Jesus, like all boys born in Jewish families, had to be circumcised, and Mary had to be purified after childbirth. Circumcision was a custom that dated all the way back to the time of Abraham, the forefather of the Jewish nation. The purification of a new mother dates from the time of Moses, and is quite specifically detailed in Leviticus 12:1 - 8.
12: 1 And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying,
2 “Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, ‘If a woman have conceived seed and borne a manchild, then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean.
3 And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
4 And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days. She shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary until the days of her purifying are fulfilled.
5 But if she bear a maidchild, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her separation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying threescore and six days.
6 “‘And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled, for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a lamb of the first year for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation unto the priest,
7 who shall offer it before the Lord and make an atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the issue of her blood. This is the law for her that hath borne a male or a female.
8 And if she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons, the one for the burnt offering and the other for a sin offering, and the priest shall make an atonement for her, and she shall be clean.’”
Today this law in reference to a woman's purification may seem sexist and offensive, but we must remember that it was consideration "separation for her infirmity". In plainer terms, she was allowed to be off her feet, away from her regular chores and everybody had to leave her alone while she nursed the newborn and recovered from her pregnancy. In a time without modern medicine, this enforced relaxation was probably a very important measure to ensure her health as well as that of the newborn.
Mary and Joseph have come to the temple for two purposes: to offer up their first-born son for the service of the Lord, and to offer up a sacrifice to God so that Mary can return to her normal duties. Since Mary is being purified here, and that ceremony takes place a month after the birth, it is likely that Jesus has already been circumcised at this point. Notice that Mary and Joseph do not offer the lamb that the scripture calls for. They have brought two birds, a quiet reminder that this is a family of working poor.
Présentation au Temple, Notre Dame Cathedral
Meditation: Simeon Declares that the Child Has Fulfilled the Prophecies
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus will have very antagonistic (and eventually fatal) relationship with the Jewish leaders of Israel. Those who meet him as an adult will view him as a threat to their authority and a rabble-rouser who might make the Roman overlords unkind to the Jewish authorities. At least now, however, there is one Jewish leader who has no political aims and can therefore see Jesus for what He is - the promised Messiah who will rescue His own people and the whole world from the oppression of sin. Simeon has waited his entire life to see this Child, and therefore has no reason to make excuses for ignoring the message. Instead, he offers up a song of praise and thanksgiving that rivals the Magnificat of Mary in its intensity and beauty. His is the song of a man who has been longing to see the prophecies fulfilled, and he enjoys the moment of triumph for God with no selfish motives to corrupt his joy.
The Presentation: Mosaic in Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece
Thank you for the miracle of Your Incarnation, which fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies and made us inheritors of Your heavenly kingdom. Help us to find the words that honor Your love and kindness to us with the intensity and conviction of Simeon.
Previous Chapter: The Nativity
- The Illustrated Life of Jesus Christ: The Nativity
At the Nativity of the Christ, Jesus is visited by poor. lowly shepherds, who represent the downtrodden of Israel. He is also visited by the Magi from the east, who represent the call of the Gentiles.
Next Chapter: The Massacre of the Innocents and the Flight Into Egypt
- The Life of Jesus Christ and the Art He Inspired: The Massacre of the Innocents, and the Flight Into
King Herod, terrified that a new King of the Jews might take his power, orders all boys under the age of two to be murdered. Meanwhile, the Holy Family escapes to Egypt.
Masterpiece of Art
Where it is located
Presentation of Jesus at the Temple
Unknown Georgian Artist, 12th century
Museum of Fine Arts,Tbilisi
Mysteries of the Rosary, Presentation of Jesus at the Temple
Cornelis de Vos, 1620
Le Vieux Siméon
James Tissot, 1886 and 1894
Brooklyn Museum, New York
Tapestry of the Purification of the Virgin
Unknown artist and date
Cathdral of Strasbourg, France
Présentation au Temple
Unknown. 13th or 14th century
Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris
Unknown artist, early 11th century
Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia