“Do you see what I see?” A Sermon on Simeon & Pete Seeger

Boston University Marsh Chapel Wednesday  January 29, 2014

Christ Episcopal Church, Andover MA, Sunday February 2, 2014

 

The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple: Luke 2:22-40

He looks out, and sees the world anew, but he does not know whose eyes he sees through. Before, he could cover one eye, that game of “Camera 1” or “Camera 2”and switch back and forth- He could see crisp and clear through “camera 1” but the world was yellowed haze through “camera 2.” He managed, squinted, and sometimes weary for a world that was in focus, he just closed his left eye. But then, after the surgery was over, there was no “Camera 2,” only bright, sharp-edged world through both eyes. After the cornea transplant, my colleague could see blazing white as “the winter sun creeps by the snow hills” and not the jaundiced scene of a faded Polaroid. But he did not, but he does, not know whose eye he sees through. Who donated that cornea? Was it a woman? How did she die? Was she “of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage then as a widow to the age of eighty-four?”  Did those eyes look into the world and see hope breaking forth? Do you see what I see? Let us pray…

Here, in the Revised Common Lectionary texts for the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, we get the stories of Simeon and Anna. In the midst of a story of faithful, observant behavior, we get the unplanned, unexpected breaking in. The Gospel writer Luke is invested in situating Mary and Joseph as ritually observant Jews. Luke is laying a foundation for Jesus’ critique from within the tradition- not as an outsider, but from within. So as faithful Jews, Mary and Joseph had the infant Jesus circumcised on the 8th day; and remembering how God passed over, on the 31st day, they would have brought the baby to the temple to dedicate the first-born male child; on the 40th day, Mary as the mother of a baby boy would return to the temple for their ritual purification. But somewhere amidst dependable ritual and centuries of tradition, Simeon and Anna interrupt.

Simeon had been waiting. Waiting and waiting. Waiting with the promise that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. When my uncle was diagnosed with cancer last summer, he asked if he might stay alive until the World Series. The Doctor told him, more like the All-Star break. We all mark time in our own measures of sacredness. Simeon, has been looking, watching and waiting for the consolation of Israel.

T_S_Eliot_1928_A_Song_of_Simeon_No_16_Ariel_Poems_FaberThe Holy Sprit rests upon him, righteous and devout, and guides Simeon into the Temple. In 1928, TS Elliot wrote a 37-line poem entitled “A Song for Simeon.” And said,

Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,

Grant Israel’s consolation

To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

Simeon takes the infant Jesus in his arms, and sings. I can’t help thinking of Mary’s surprise and confusion as a strange old man takes her child out of her arms. But something about Simeon’s posture, his wrinkled hands against smooth infant’s skin, his hooded eyes fixed on the bright face of the child made Mary stop and listen to his song:

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 

Here, before the Infant can even speak, before Jesus of Nazareth can even utter the words,  “Who do you say that I am?” Before Mary’s son would be raised up and hung on a cross drawing all to him? Here before all of that, Simeon declares the revelation of God’s love in the Christ. How did Simeon know this was the Messiah? Surely, there were other baby boys in the temple that day. Were Simeon’s eyes clouded over with cataracts? Did he know his Savior by the touch of soft baby skin or the sweet smell of milk still on the Infant’s lips?  How did Simeon see and proclaim this?

When the Reformer John Calvin comments on this passage in Luke, he writes “From this song it is sufficiently evident, that Simeon looked at the Son of God with different eyes from the eyes of flesh. For the outward beholding of Christ could have produced no feeling but contempt, or, at least, would never have imparted such satisfaction to the mind of the holy man, as to make him joyful and desirous to die, from having reached the summit of his wishes. The Spirit of God enlightened his eyes by faith, to perceive, under a mean and poor dress, the glory of the Son of God.”

In our liturgies, we train these eyes of flesh, again and again, to see with the “eyes of faith.” Simeon’s song, known in the Latin as the Nunc Dimitas is often said or sung in the Compline service just before bed. It is sung sometimes after receiving the Eucharist and sometimes in funeral liturgies. At the end of the day, at the end of the Eucharist, at the end of life, this is what we aspire to: to go in peace, to see salvation for all peoples, to proclaim the glory of God. To see and to proclaim. Those of us who are trying to figured out what our particular Christian witness in social media ought to take these words to heart. What did Simeon have, even at his old age? Eyes to see and voice to proclaim.

But what exactly did Simeon see? Pastor John Stendahl, serving the Lutheran Church of the Newtons just follow Beacon Street all the way to Newton Center, writes “But what has he seen, really? It’s just a little child in his arms, a powerless, speechless newcomer to the world. Whatever salvation this baby might work is still only a promise and a hope; whatever teaching he might offer will remain hidden for many years. Nothing has happened yet. Herod still sits on his throne and Caesar governs from afar. The world looks as it did before.”

And yet, Simeon sings.

Pete-Seeger-and-Bruce-Springsteen-at-Lincoln-Memorial-2009-Justin-Sullivan-Getty-Images-630x420This week, the advocate musician Pete Seeger died. In 2009, there was a giant concert for Pete’s 90th birthday. At the time, Bruce Springsteen said, “Now, despite Pete’s somewhat benign grandfatherly appearance, you know, he is a creature of a stubborn, defiant and nasty optimism.” Do you hear Simeon in that? A stubborn optimism?

Bruce tells the story of performing at President Obama’s with Pete Seeger. They were preparing to sing, “This Land is Your Land.” Bruce asked what they should do. Pete said, “Well, I know I want to sing all the verses. You know, I want to sing all the ones that Woody wrote, especially the two that get left out, you know, about private property and the relief office.” Bruce continues, “And I thought, of course, you know, that’s what Pete’s done his whole life: he sings all the verses all the time, especially the ones that we’d like to leave out of our history as a people, you know?… Pete Seeger still sings all the verses all the time, and he reminds us of our immense failures, as well as shining a light towards our better angels in the horizon, where the country we’ve imagined and hold dear, we hope, awaits us.” With Herod still on the throne, with the savior still just an infant, with the world not yet changed, and with that last stanza, about a sword piercing Mary’s own soul too, Simeon sings all the verses.

Sometimes our best theology is buried in those late verses. The Christmas hymn “Do you see what I see” was written relatively recently- 1962. Noel Regney wrote the lyrics for the song, while Gloria Shayne composed the Christmas carol’s music. Usually it was the other way around, with Gloria writing and Noel composing.  It’s a biblical game of telephone with increasingly important characters: Do you see what I see? Do you hear what I hear? Do you know what I know? And the last verse departs from the Scriptural versions of the Christmas story:

Said the king to the people everywhere

Listen to what I say

Pray for peace people everywhere

Listen to what I say

The child, the child

Sleeping in the night

He will bring us goodness and light

The hymn writers were trying to see a different way- to see a world where the king doesn’t plot to slaughter the innocents but prays for people everywhere. In later interviews, Gloria would say the Christmas carol was a plea for peace, written in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis. A stubborn optimism. A willingness to see a promise and a hope not yet realized.

My colleague with the cornea transplant will put steroid drops into his eye for the rest of his life. There’s always a risk that the transplant will be rejected- that this new eye will no longer work. He must be disciplined, stubborn even, in the daily practice to attend to his eye. Simeon’s vision came after years and years, a righteous and devout man. Sure, God can surprise us all, but this is a cultivated practice of searching, seeing and proclaiming, constantly turning our eyes to the light.

Can we see what Simeon sees? Will we practice that stubborn, defiant optimism? Can we look upon a world, broken and bruised, at war or plotting for war, and see a light to enlighten the nations? Can we look upon an intractable position in the Middle East and see the glory of God’s people? Can we sing all the verses? Even when our eyes are clouded, even when the promises of God are still as unformed as a 40 day old infant, even today with whatever weight you are carrying. Even today. That’s the invitation.

 

 

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