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Naming the baby

Presentation of Jesus: Song of Simeon

A meditation


One of my favorite authors, John Updike once said and I paraphrase loosely here, that the “job of the writer who is a novelist used to be the job of the priest (or the job the priest was supposed to perform) which was to tell the truth.” He said that writers do what judges, priests, doctors and others, will not do. Tell the truth. This stopped me and made me wonder if, since I am a priest, I tell the truth and if I do, what is it? And if I don’t, what is it? And then, being me, I went down the road of what is truth anyway? One person’s truth is another’s foolish musing. I didn’t go far with this because I believe what John Updike was really talking about is the kind of truth we all see, everyday, in any given situation and either say nothing or choose to say something that is not truth at all.

The Hebrew prophets often spoke of a truth that will be revealed, made part of life and when that happens, the prophet reasonably asks, “who will be able to stand it?” The truth will be like a refiners fire - very hot, softening what is not naturally soft, shaping, transforming - there is a kind of wrenching that happens and it is not easy on that which is being transformed. However, what is doom for one, is a blessing for another - just depends on which one you are. This makes truth risky business from the get-go.

When Jesus is taken as a tiny infant to the temple, as all good Jewish parents did, to dedicate their first born to God, this normal event becomes the first of seven sorrows for his mother, Mary. A joyous ritual, parents with grateful hearts - relieved the child has been born safely, no longer fearing child-bed fever for mother or infant, Mary and Joseph come to present their son. Here they find old Simeon, tending the temple, taking care of things, going about his business. His words, flowing out of his heart at the sight of this baby, are known as the Song of Simeon.

 The Song of Simeon is one of my favorites and I do not know why. I love the language, the imagine of an old fellow, wizened and wise, who comes unglued at the appearance of this baby. He sees in this tiny face the promise of everything for everyone, a light to enlighten the nations. It is why, I think, this is what we see when we look into the face of any baby - especially our own, or a one we claim as grandparents, godparents, aunts and uncles, even brothers and sisters. We see the promise of everything for everyone. It is a piercing kind of love we feel. It pierces our hearts. In that piercing we can know a small bit of how God feels towards us and how we might feel if we could really look into the face of God.

So what might be the truth here? Might it be that looking at our own normal, not going to be the savior of the world babies, we still see a being who is only about love - deserving everything good and whole and kind; deserving nothing mean or cruel or unkind; we see a being we know deserves food and water and warmth; never deserving hunger or thirst or homelessness. And we see that every single baby is this same being. No matter where they were born or to whom. They are just babies.

Simeon sees all of this and more. He also sees that this baby will suffer what he does not deserve and will love anyway; he sees that this little boy will be ridiculed and will speak of sacrifice to others anyway; he sees that his mother Mary’s heart will be pierced as he hangs dying and that he will comfort her; he sees that the lowly will be held high in this infant’s hand, the outcast will be invited in, the stranger will be an honored guest. Simeon sees that all these things will be revealed and from this time on, forever and ever, it will be about each one of us choosing to see the fullness of God’s divine love in every one else...or not. Because, because, every one of us starts out as a baby. And that is the truth.